For twentyfive years Greg Palast has worn the same hat when setting about his tricky snooping, but on the day that we meet in London the trademark grey fedora is missing. Still, it's a bit of a minor accomplishment that we manage to meet up at all. Because of a misunderstanding, Palast is waiting to be interviewed by The Herald in one location and we are waiting in another. Eyes skinned for a man slouching under a shady brim, we have no luck with the passing crowd. After 30 minutes a call to his mobile sorts things out. He's just round the corner, he says, barely a clandestine whisper away. ''I'll be with you in seconds,'' he promises.

Actually for all its meticulous scheming, much investigative journalism is like this: a cock-up of rendezvous confusion with one side or the other failing to show. But Palast does materialise, bare-headed, though, and looking far more genial than his self-description of ''dark prophet'' leads strangers to expect. His handshake is that American speciality, the double-handed clasp practised so effortlessly by Bill Clinton to signify sincerity and trust. But, hey, this is a guy who's meant to be the ultimate cynic. Palast has only to see two

people in a huddle to sniff a conspiracy. So who is he exactly?

In short, he is among the last of that old-fashioned journalistic breed, the outraged pamphleteer, a tireless investigative reporter striving to expose the gross and tiny tyrannies of life. As a result Palast is typecast in his native America, and, increasingly, over here, as the implacable enemy of capitalist forces, a sparky warrior allied to the truculent credo of that great polemicist, Claud Cockburn: never believe anything until it's been officially denied.

So, herewith a quick inventory of some Palast scoops: Florida's vanished voters: he was the first journalist to break the story of how the state governor, Jeb Bush, and his secretary, Katherine Harris, ordered the removal of 57,700 names from the electoral registers on grounds that they belonged to felons. In fact only a handful were felons, but 54% were African-Americans. The iron triangle of globalisation: Palast's story, based on confidential documents, gained improbable praise in the Wall Street Journal whose critic called it ''great writing on the evil empire of the International Monetary Fund''. Lobbygate I, in which Palast was instrumental in alleging that, during Tony Blair's first term as prime minister, New Labour was ''running a flea market of favours out of Downing Street''. In Lobbygate II, Palast rented out his gumshoe expertise to reveal crony networking at the Scottish parliament.

Not surprising then that, to those in authority, Palast's very name is often the prelude to shit hitting the fan. His latest book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, is a characteristic rant of essays which, with manic vigour, delves into subjects like the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil-spill off Alaska and the corporate sins of Enron which Palast sussed eight years before anyone wanted to know. But surely the downside of all this lifting of stones on the world's secret workings and squalid liaisons is that the individual who sees hidden agendas in everything becomes a conspiracy obsessive?

''You think I'm some sort of nut? Listen, there are lots of evil deals being cut around the planet by government people and big corporate powers who fix major policies to their own advantage. The Enron story proves that. These guys get together with your government and mine and decide what's best for the rest of us because it's best for them, but they don't exactly invite us to the meeting.'' By comparison, says Palast, the doings of lobbyists are small beer. ''OK, you don't like to see politicians taking money to do favours for a guy like Al Fayed but that's minor stuff. Lobbyists simply carry notes between the parties.''

As he urges us to consider how cheaply Britain submits to the arm-lock of corporate muscle, Palast's speech and thought processes race like the dizzying convolutions of a helter-

skelter. He calls government personnel buffoons if they believe that foreign companies like Enron, Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Wackenhut (the company that runs privatised US prisons), are a wonderful means of pulling us out

of social torpor so that we can all become hard, thrusting American entrepreneurs. And among his simmering theories is this one: Tony

Blair, according to Palast, actually despises Britain because of its museum quaintness.

''The little chemist shop, the little town with its little local post office and railway station. You guys love all that and that's what kills him. Remember, until Enron's collapse, Blair was proud that it had its training operations based here. Enron started its first de-regulated plants here even though I had warned the government specifically about these guys. I mean, I worked for Blair for a short while as an adviser which, the way things turned out, is pretty funny.''

The way things turned out in the aftermath of Lobbygate involved the prime minister rubbishing Palast from the floor of the Commons while Alastair Campbell denounced him as a liar and Peter Mandelson warned that Palast was not to be trusted. If they had swagged him with every honour going this American interloper would not have been more pleased. '''Damn', I thought, '''it doesn't get better than this'.''

A defender of those two enduring American radicals, the green movement's Ralph Nader and the left's most elevated sage, Noam Chomsky, Palast is perhaps the nearest his country has to that ''voice of the unpeople'', John Pilger but without Pilger's aura of self-reverence. Instead what we have in Palast is a swashbuckling subversive, hence the fedora.

''Listen, there are plenty of risks in being my sort of investigator, so you've got to inject some fun into the job as well. In the US I've been called a cross between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes.'' But long before he was a journalist Palast was a gumshoe of a different order, in charge of major racketeering investigations for the US government.

''For instance I was the investigator of fraud charges against Exxon and British Petroleum relating to the Exxon Valdez break-up.'' On March 24, 1989, the ship had run aground, spilling oily sludge which eventually covered 1200 miles of the Alaskan shoreline belonging to the Chugach natives of Prince William Sound. It was that incident, so hugely and lastingly destructive to the inhabitants and natural environment, which compelled Palast to take up journalism.

''The reporters covering the investigation from their desks thousands of miles away were just screwing up on the story, swallowing the line that the oil spill was down to the human error of a drunken skipper. But I learned that Exxon had shut off the ship's radar before it had gone aground because the equipment, which was very sophisticated, required expensive repairs. So by shutting it off Exxon was saving money.''

But equipped with what he calls his ''heavy duty academic credentials'' - an economics degree - Palast might have veered towards a career with the IMF or, perhaps, a corporate bank. He hoots at the very suggestion but what drove him so purposefully in the opposite direction? ''OK, I grew up in Los Angeles in the never-privileged class of America where my father was a furniture salesman and hated every minute of it and my mother worked in a school cafeteria. And that's why I developed a great anger and dislike for privileged pricks like the Bush family who are born with oil wells and don't even have to win votes to end up in the White House.''

So, with little besides angst to keep body and soul together, Palast began working from cheap, dingy basements for human-rights lawyers. ''I lived on I don't know what, air mostly, but I like to think it kept me nice and thin and good looking. And eventually some of these lawyers became helluva wealthy because they were winning their clients' cases, and I ended up with a big office in New York at the World Trade Centre, still seeking out the evil-doers. It was a lot of fun.''

Heading for Alaska was fun, too, he says. ''You take your canoe, go into the wilderness and search for the evidence.'' And did the fedora accompany him? ''C'mon it's my hat. For quarter of a century it's gone everywhere

with me but I didn't wear it today because it's sunny.'' In fact, Palast never thought about the fedora as an

image prop until he first showed up in Britain and Alastair Campbell told everybody never to trust the guy in the hat. That instruction gave it kudos. ''From then on the hat became kind

of necessary.''

Book tours, an appearance on Radio 4's Any Questions, a Boston lecture with Chomsky in the chair, then back to the UK to speak at the sixth Edinburgh Radical Book Fair next month

. . . these are among the pleasurable adornments to Palast's life, but the real preoccupation is always the same: sifting evidence and scampering towards the next big global scandal before the shredder gets to work. Obviously there can be other dangers, too. ''That's another reason to take a camera crew along. You're more protected that way. But I do worry about my sources. In Tanzania a human-rights lawyer, Tundu Lissu, gave me evidence about killings by gold mine operators who had connections to George Bush, and now Lissu has been charged with sedition for handing me the information.''

Palast's persistent problem, he says, is that investigative journalism in the US is a joke. ''Everyone believes that Watergate was a groundbreaker for the press, but it proved to be so unusual they had to make a movie out of it. Today American

editors are afraid of their own shadows, afraid of offending their corporate sponsors, their owners, their cronies, and buddies in the clubs. How else did George W get away with stealing the White House?''

Yet if the doors to mainstream journalism are mainly locked against him, Palast isn't too concerned. He will continue his indefatigable toiling through any clue to the build-up of the Bush dynasty's finances, its links to Enron, and why, before September 11, the president, as Palast alleges, quashed inquiries into the bin Laden family's funding of terrorism. And, anyway, he believes that America is now snapping out of its post-traumatic trance. ''Americans might be fed a bunch of crap, but ultimately they're not fooled. They rallied round the president even though he's a usurper and a creep because they'd been under attack from a strange, inexplicable force. But with the Enron disaster the hypnosis is wearing off.

''In fact, I was just speaking to Noam Chomsky, who said he'd never seen so much open dissent in America as now.'' The European media, Palast insists, hasn't yet picked up on this but readership figures for America's alternative press are rising significantly and Stupid White Men, the latest pungent critique of right-wing America by political satirist, Michael Moore, now tops the best-seller charts.

''Moore uses lots of my material, but I've just come back from San Francisco where, of all the goofy things, people even paid to listen to me. So, I mean, folk want to hear this stuff, and they're remembering that 12 months after Poppa Bush was the heroic

trooper of Desert Storm he was thrown out of office in that year's presidential election.''

For that reason Palast believes Poppa's son will be commander-in-chief for one term only. And even if George W has a long way to go between now and 2004, he can be sure of this: Greg Palast will be dogging him, sniffing out any hidden agendas. The swashbuckling subversive ever on the alert.

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast. Pluto Press. (pounds) 18.99. Greg Palast will be at

the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair

at 2pm on May 18 in the Assembly Rooms. Further information

from Elaine Henry, Word

Power Bookshop, Edinburgh

(0131 662 9112).