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Blair Aide Apologizes for Remark About Scientist

The prime minister's spokesman likened David Kelly, who killed himself, to Walter Mitty.

August 06, 2003|From Reuters

LONDON — A top aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized Tuesday for comparing the dead Iraq weapons inspector at the center of his government's worst political crisis to a fictional fantasist.

The suicide of scientist David Kelly days after he appeared in front of a parliamentary panel investigating whether the case for war in Iraq was exaggerated has turned into a test of the government's credibility.

Blair's official spokesman, Tom Kelly, apologized for linking David Kelly, a respected government weapons inspector who made dozens of trips to Iraq, to fictional daydreamer Walter Mitty, the creation of American author James Thurber.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, heading the government while Blair is vacationing in Barbados, also apologized, writing to the scientist's widow, Janice, expressing regret over the "unsubstantiated remarks about Dr. Kelly."

Prescott is to attend Kelly's funeral on Wednesday.

Thurber created the Mitty character in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," in which a henpecked man of modest means and talents persistently daydreams about a much more exciting and glamorous life than his own.

The admission of the remark, made a day after Blair's office denied that anyone had made the comment with its approval, drove the government deeper into turmoil and further undermined its credibility at a time of plummeting public trust.

Glenda Jackson, a former minister and an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, said attempts by Blair's Downing Street office to discredit David Kelly hours before his funeral were "obscene."

"It's the opening salvo by No. 10 in an attempt to turn the victim into a villain," she told Sky News.

Tom Kelly said the comment had been made in a "private conversation" with a reporter and was not designed to discredit the scientist, who is to be buried today.

"I now recognize that even that limited form of communication was a mistake, given the current climate," Tom Kelly, who is not related to the scientist, said in a statement.

"I therefore unreservedly apologize to Dr. Kelly's widow and family for having intruded on their grief."

David Kelly slit his wrist after being identified as the source of a BBC report alleging that the government had exaggerated evidence of alleged banned weapons in Iraq to justify a war that is unpopular in Britain.

The Blair government's reputation for public-relations spin, and the failure to find clear evidence of the banned weapons cited by the British and U.S. governments as their main reason for going to war, have caused the prime minister's approval ratings to collapse. The handling of the David Kelly affair has exacerbated the crisis.

A poll Tuesday showed that 52% of the public trusts Blair very little or not at all.

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