20 July 2003 01:04
The torment of a man who knew too much
The hawk who became a dove: did a change of heart drive scientist to kill himself?
By Raymond Whitaker, Severin Carrell and Steve Bloomfield
20 July 2003
There were few clues in the career of David Kelly, one of the most respected scientists in his field, that he would choose a lonely death in the Oxfordshire countryside.
The 59-year-old microbiologist had endured years of confrontation and harassment as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. He carried out 37 inspections in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, when the inspectors pulled out on the grounds that Saddam Hussein's regime had made it impossible for them to continue. Dr Kelly had also investigated illicit smallpox laboratories in Russia, facing down Russian officials who were as difficult and as devious as their Iraqi counterparts.
According to Professor Julian Perry Robinson, Britain's most senior and respected expert on chemical weapons and a friend and colleague of Dr Kelly, these experiences hardened him. It seems unlikely that a man with his background would have been driven to suicide by one or two bumptious members of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, unpleasant though he clearly found his public grilling by the MPs.
Friends and fellow scientists have speculated that he came under heavy pressure in Whitehall once he had admitted giving an unauthorised interview to Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist. But he was an experienced bureaucrat who had been spied on and bullied by far more menacing people than the mandarins of the Ministry of Defence.
One important piece of evidence that has been overlooked, however, is that Dr Kelly, once known as one of the more hawkish UN inspectors in Iraq, appeared to have changed his views in the past couple of years. "Because of the way they were treated by the Iraqis, most UN weapons inspectors were convinced that Saddam Hussein had something to hide," said one analyst, who asked not to be named. "But Dr Kelly was more outspoken than the majority of them. Not only did he speak quite frequently about the difficulties the inspectors faced, he emphasised that the Iraqis had vast quantities of chemical and biological material before the 1991 Gulf War.
"He was also one of the few inspectors willing to comment on the suffering the regime had inflicted on the Iraqis themselves."
Despite his conventional upbringing - he was born in the Rhondda Valley, the son of an RAF officer and a school teacher, and he grew up in Tunbridge Wells - Dr Kelly had become a follower of the Baha'i faith, which originated in Persia. Fellow inspectors said he went out of his way to get to know the Iraqis.
A teetotaller with a reputation as a principled opponent of the Iraqi regime, he was senior adviser on biological weapons to Unscom, the UN weapons inspectorate, until 1999. That year he took on a similar role as a consultant to the MoD and the Foreign Office. In April last year, when the Government began looking for experts to contribute to a dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, it seemed natural for it to call on Dr Kelly.
What the Government might not have known was that a month earlier, at a seminar at University College London, the scientist had signalled a change of heart. Throughout the 1990s, he said, UN inspection teams had found no definite evidence of any ongoing chemical or biological programmes in Iraq.
"Having agreed to take part in what he believed would be an objective assessment of the state of Iraq's WMD, it is possible that he became disillusioned as the process went on," said the analyst. "Initially the Government was talking about releasing a dossier very quickly, but it was six months before it was finally issued in September 2002, with highly contentious allegations we all know about, especially the claim that Saddam could launch weapons within 45 minutes of the order being given.
"For a man who knew this was nonsense, it must have been a severe strain. For professional reasons he had to put out statements in which he didn't have any faith."
Even if he was not Mr Gilligan's source for the claim that the Prime Minister's communications director, Alastair Campbell, inserted the 45 minutes claim to "sex up" the dossier, Dr Kelly's doubts were communicated to Mr Gilligan and other journalists. He told them and the Foreign Affairs Committee that there was only a 30 per cent chance that Iraq still had biological weapons at the beginning of the war.
But on 3 July, as the row between Mr Campbell and the BBC over the allegation hotted up, a troubled Dr Kelly came forward to his line manager. According to the Government, he had been worried by press reports of the saga because he had met Mr Gilligan at the Charing Cross hotel in London on 22 May, a week before the journalist made his allegation. Although Dr Kelly was convinced that he was not the source, he was anxious because some of the points covered in their discussion featured in Mr Gilligan's reports.
MoD officials questioned Dr Kelly, in line with the department's normal practice on personnel matters. Downing Street is adamant that it was not involved. "We played it by the book," insisted one Whitehall source.
Dr Kelly and the MoD agreed that a statement would be issued that would not name him, but would say that an official had come forward to admit he had held an unauthorised conversation with Mr Gilligan. No 10 was consulted about this move and approved it.
According to Downing Street, Dr Kelly was warned that it was "quite likely" his name would become public, because there were relatively few people working in his field. He was offered alternative accommodation by the MoD to help him avoid a media scrum outside his house. He was also told he might be asked to give evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which monitors the security services.
Dr Kelly was told that he would not face disciplinary action because he had come forward, although he was given a verbal warning - described as a "mild reprimand" - for talking to the BBC journalist.
The statement about the unauthorised conversation with Mr Gilligan was not issued until five days after Dr Kelly came forward. Whitehall says the delay was due to the need to assess whether he might be Mr Gilligan's source, and to "get it absolutely right". But some MPs smelt a rat when the MoD issued the statement just before 6pm on 8 July, right after the Government had suffered a damaging backbench Labour revolt against its plans to set up foundation hospitals. However, the Government was adamant that it was not timed to distract attention from the revolt. On the day of the statement, according to No 10, it was held up to allow Dr Kelly, who was driving on a motorway, to reach a service station so that he could approve the final wording.
However, senior Whitehall sources sympathetic to the scientist have another version of events. According to them, Dr Kelly was interrogated for four days before the MoD issued its statement. The questioning was described as "brutal", and during it, the sources say, he was threatened with being charged under the Official Secrets Act.
The Government insists Dr Kelly was treated properly and that no threats were made. "We are not talking about lightbulbs in the basement of the Ministry of Defence," one source said. But his death will clearly lead to a re-examination of his treatment at the hands of civil servants and politicians.
Professor Robinson said Dr Kelly's experiences in Russia and Iraq made him the leading expert on biological weapons and verification. "The most authoritative source was David Kelly himself," he said. "He was really unique. There are so few people around with his understanding of the technicalities of inspecting."
If Dr Kelly had become more sceptical about the most recent allegations that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programme, this was probably due to the absence of evidence, said Professor Robinson. While very hawkish about the Iraqi programme during the mid-1990s, Dr Kelly would only rely on proof or objective tests, not on unsubstantiated claims, he said. As a result, he would be more neutral than sceptical.
"He was a scientist who based his conclusions on observable data, but on the lack of observable data he certainly didn't draw conclusions. That was his hallmark," said Professor Robinson.
After taking a BSc in bacteriology at Leeds University, David Kelly studied for his doctorate at Oxford. He began his career in agricultural science, but soon moved into the world of biological weapons, joining the secret government chemical and biological establishment at Porton Down, where he was head of microbiology from 1984 to 1992.
In 1989, Dr Kelly's growing reputation led MI6 to ask him to debrief a Russian defector, Dr Vladimir Pasechnik, the research director of what turned out to be a clandestine Soviet biological weapons laboratory in western Siberia. Later Dr Kelly headed a top-secret visit by British and American scientists to the Siberian laboratory, where they uncovered evidence of Soviet smallpox trials.
That visit, and the defector's sensational evidence, led Britain and the US to set up a highly secret, and ultimately unsuccessful, project in 1992 to inspect the former Soviet biological weapons programme. But the new Russian regime, led by President Boris Yeltsin, refused to disclose the full extent of the tests.
Dr Kelly routinely lectured on biological weapons and verification at the former Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham in Wiltshire, now part of Cranfield University. He attended expert seminars on biological weapons, and held workshops with doctoral students.
He also was a key expert at top-secret meetings of the world's leading chemical and biological weapons experts, held twice-yearly in Geneva and The Hague, organised by the authoritative and influential Pugwash Group.
"He was very highly rated by that small group of people who met in various diverse places to talk about biological weapons - people who were both insiders and outsiders," said Dr Malcolm Dando, a WMD expert at Bradford University.
As the furore over the US and Britain's weapons claims rumbled on, months after the end of the war, Dr Kelly must have felt his reputation was at stake. As more time elapsed without any evidence being found in Iraq to prove the Government's claims, a man who had invested a large part of his life in discovering the truth about that country's weapons of mass destruction found himself associated with a campaign that appeared further and further from the truth.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Dr Kelly joked: "Little did I realise that Saddam Hussein would dictate the next 10 years of my life." Possibly the last email he sent was to another chemical weapons expert, Professor Alistair Hay, of Leeds University. In reply to a message of support from Professor Hay, he wrote at 11.17am on Thursday: "Many thanks for your support. Hopefully, it will soon pass, and I can get to Baghdad and get on with the real job." Dr Kelly never returned to Iraq, but his involvement with the country, which had affected his life so deeply, ultimately led to his death.
From a hotel rendezvous to death on Harrowdown Hill
Andrew Gilligan, the BBC's defence correspondent, and a Ministry of Defence weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, meet at a hotel in Charing Cross, central London.
Mr Gilligan tells BBC Radio 4's Today programme that a senior British official has told him the Government's Iraq dossier published last September was "sexed up" against the wishes of the intelligence services.
Mr Gilligan writes an article accusing Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, of inserting into the dossier the claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
Mr Gilligan gives evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Giving evidence to the select committee, Mr Campbell denies the allegations against him and demands a BBC apology.
The BBC rejects the call for an apology and stands by the Today report. Mr Campbell says the BBC has "not a shred of evidence for their lie".
The committee clears Mr Campbell.
The MoD says an official has come forward to admit he had an "unauthorised" meeting with Mr Gilligan on 22 May. But the BBC insists the description doesn't match their source in important ways. Dr Kelly, anonymously, agrees to a statement admitting to having met Mr Gilligan but maintains he could not have been responsible for the allegation that No 10 inserted the 45-minute claim into the dossier. Despite this, he is warned his name might be made public.
The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, writes to Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC, challenging him to confirm Dr Kelly as Mr Gilligan's source. Downing Street tells newspapers they are "99 per cent certain" Dr Kelly was the mole. Mr Hoon's letter is leaked to the press.
Dr Kelly is revealed as the MoD official at the hotel meeting but the BBC refuses to discuss whether he was the main source for Mr Gilligan's story.
In evidence to the select committee, Dr Kelly says: "I don't believe I am the main source. From the conversation I had I don't see how he [Mr Gilligan] could make the authoritative statements he was making from the comments I made." For the next three days the media besiege his home, forcing him to leave it for a shelter at an MoD property.
At parliamentary question time, Mr Blair calls on the BBC to say whether Dr Kelly is their source.
Mr Gilligan is recalled to the committee. Donald Anderson, the chairman, later describes him as an "unsatisfactory witness", adding: "Mr Gilligan appeared to change his mind on the very grave allegation in quite a fundamental way." At 3pm, Dr Kelly leaves his Oxfordshire home for a walk and doesn't return. At 11.45pm, his family contacts the police.
At 9.30am, the police find a man's body at Harrowdown Hill, close to Dr Kelly's home.
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