Soul Searching

Of all the deaths in the Iraq conflict, that of David Kelly by his own hand may prove the most damaging to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Kelly, an accomplished Iraqi weapons inspector working within the British Ministry of Defense, killed himself in July after the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) admitted that he had been the unnamed source of information in reports.

A public inquiry into Kelly’s death, chaired by Lord Hutton, has exposed both the government and the BBC to unusual scrutiny. It has also revealed that Kelly wasn’t alone among colleagues who had reservations about the way intelligence was used to promote war against Iraq (See “The Prewar Intelligence Imbroglio,” WPR’s October 2003 cover story.)

Blair himself testified at the inquiry in early September. While he gave “a confident performance,” political commentator Iain MacWhirter wrote in the Sunday Herald (Aug. 31), “The Hutton inquiry…has lit a bonfire under the PM’s credibility, which may consume him. Six months after the war began, we are still in search of its cause. No WMDs have been found. Yet, in parliament one year ago, Blair said of Saddam: ‘He has active and military plans for the use of chemical weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes.’ The PM claimed he stood by that assessment. He is increasingly on his own.”

The BBC’s troubles are less so, although its Andrew Gilligan has been cast in a dour light. Gilligan was one of two BBC reporters who had spoken to Kelly. The Hutton inquiry has exposed e-mails that show Gilligan was trying to influence parliamentary questioning of Kelly, whose suicide came only days after his now controversial appearance before a somewhat spiky panel of MPs.

“Whatever else the Hutton inquiry achieves, it seems likely to terminate the journalistic career of Gilligan, whose reputation among fellow hacks has been irretrievably damaged,” noted Private Eye (Sept. 5-18). Such an outcome would please The Sun, which has been most vociferous among the conservative tabloids in its disdain for the BBC, calling it the “Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation” (Aug 6).

Former U.N. weapons inspector Olivia Bosch, a friend of Kelly, said the scientist, although experienced in speaking to the press, was “taken aback” by Gilligan’s “determination to pin the blame on someone,” wrote Matt Wells in the Guardian (Sept. 5). Her testimony directly contradicts Gilligan’s claim that Kelly volunteered Campbell as responsible for the so-called sexing up of any dossier.

“There can be little question now that David Kelly was sacrificed—in the vulgar phrase, hung out to dry—by all the principal players in this great public drama,” wrote Janet Daley in the Daily Telegraph (Sept. 3). “But most crucially: If the BBC had agreed promptly to some sort of correction or retraction of its earliest version of the Gilligan story, the entire train of events would have been stopped in its tracks.”

But one of the last witnesses in the first phase of the Hutton inquiry backed both Kelly’s misgivings and reporting by the BBC. “Brian Jones, recently retired as assistant director of intelligence…in the Defense Intelligence Analysis staff, outlined to Lord Hutton the same kind of worries about the dossier that were reflected in Gilligan’s controversial report,” wrote Sandra Laville and Neil Tweedie in the Daily Telegraph (Sept. 4). “In his view, the term ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ used repeatedly by the prime minister, was nothing more than a ‘convenient catch-all phrase.’ [His] concerns about the dossier centered on the ‘over-egging’ of the claim that Iraq had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons when no solid evidence existed, the inclusion of too much certainty, and the reliance on an untested single source for the 45-minute claim without any collateral intelligence to back it up.”