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With Hearings Done, British Await Report on Scientist's Suicide

Inquiry into the death of a weapons expert has exposed the inner workings of the Blair government and put the BBC on the spot.

September 26, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Britain's inquiry into the suicide of an expert on Iraq's weapons program wrapped up hearings Thursday, its 22 days of evidence having provided an extraordinary peek into the bunkers of the government, its secret services and the BBC.

Now it's up to Lord Justice Brian Hutton, who heads the inquiry, to parse the extensive testimony, e-mails and diary excerpts from the country's top officials and come up with a coherent explanation for why government scientist David Kelly killed himself in July.

But when Hutton delivers his report in November or December, he also is expected to examine the wider issues raised by the probe, including how the government handled intelligence in the run-up to war and the BBC's coverage of it. Already, the fallout from Kelly's death has triggered a sharp drop in Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair's approval ratings.

The scandal centering on Kelly, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, began when the BBC aired reports, based on information from an anonymous source, claiming that Blair had overstated the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The reports questioned information in a dossier, published by Britain six months before the war began, that detailed Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons activity. The document was a cornerstone of Blair's case for war.

The Blair government exposed Kelly's identity as the BBC's source as it fought desperately to refute the broadcaster's claim that senior government officials had "sexed up" the case for war. Apparently distraught at being thrust into the limelight, the scientist walked into a forest July 17, slashed his wrist and bled to death.

At first, Hutton was asked to investigate the circumstances of Kelly's death, but his mandate expanded to examine events leading to publication of the controversial dossier. In the process, he wiped the film off a once-opaque world.

"This has been totally ground-breaking," historian Andrew Roberts of Cambridge University said. "The government has just dumped national security considerations by setting up this inquiry."

Official government documents in Britain normally remain sealed for at least 30 years, Roberts said, but "in this case we have seen internal e-mails from No. 10 [Downing Street] to the security services -- some of them written a few weeks ago -- and watched interrogations of everyone up to the prime minister and the head of MI6," Britain's foreign intelligence agency. "We're seeing stuff not intended for our perusal until January 2034!"

Along the way, the inquiry's revelations have appalled Kelly's family, which contends he was treated like a pawn in a showdown between Blair and the BBC, and titillated the public. Testimony has revealed a government obsessed with discrediting the state broadcaster and its reporter Andrew Gilligan, and convinced that outing Kelly as the source was the most effective way.

Blair's aides noted that Gilligan had claimed his source was a member of the "intelligence services," whereas Kelly was in fact a scientist working for the Ministry of Defense. In a diary extract made available to the inquiry, Blair's then-communications director, Alastair Campbell, noted at the time: "The biggest thing we needed was the source out," adding that "it would [expletive] Gilligan if that was his source."

Campbell's salty language led some newspapers to cast Blair's Downing Street as a latter-day Nixon White House, though Blair himself emerged in Campbell's portrayal as a restraining influence.

"Alastair's words show the passions involved, but Blair comes across well as the guy trying to hold back all these hot-heads around him," said Lance Price, who was Campbell's deputy until two years ago.

The BBC also had its tortured moments. Called to the stand twice, Gilligan eventually retracted and apologized for some errors in his reporting. But he and the BBC's top executives stood by the substance of their claim intelligence information did not justify some of the alarming language in the dossier.

"Gilligan was dead right but he got his detail wrong," said Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"The government is now grossly discredited. The civil service is discredited. The security services are discredited," Ingham said. "We have discovered exactly what goes on when you politicize the civil services, and Blair has to face up to the music."

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