Dr Kelly's bitter end
AS TONY Blair was receiving the last of his 17 standing ovations in the United States Congress, the patience of David Kelly's family finally snapped. At their wits’ end, at 15 minutes to midnight, they reported that the 59-year-old scientist had been missing from his home in Southmoor for almost nine hours.
The Prime Minister was disappearing into private conference with President George Bush, in the afterglow of his rapturous reception from America’s top politicians, when Thames Valley Police triggered a determined search for a man who had been struggling to escape the glare of public attention for eight days. Kelly had walked out of the house at 3pm, quietly saying he was going for a walk, yet totally unprepared for the wet and blustery conditions that were to greet him outside.
It was not until the following morning, with Blair midway across the Pacific on his way to Japan, that Kelly was discovered, lying face down by the track leading to the beauty spot Harrowdown Hill. Haunted by the merciless and unrelenting pressure upon him over his role in the Iraq dossier affair, and hunted to the last, the mild-mannered weapons expert had found his own escape from the furies that had engulfed him so suddenly by taking painkillers and cutting his wrist. He bled to death alone in the countryside.
"Many thanks for your support," Kelly wrote to his friend and fellow weapons inspector, Alastair Hay, in an e-mail on Wednesday, which became one of his last official communications. "Hopefully it will soon pass and I can get back to Baghdad, and get on with a proper job." It was a wistful message betraying a simple picture of his hopes for life after the media maelstrom, but he was to achieve neither ambition.
Another message, to a friend who worked for the New York Times, betrayed his concerns that the odds were stacked against him. In an e-mail to Judy Miller, hours before he took his own life, he warned of the "many dark actors playing games" assailing him.
David Kelly’s suicide has created the greatest political scandal in Britain for years. And yet he was an unlikely candidate to feature in political dramas, or dominate national news bulletins, and friends insist he was even less likely to take his own life. Happily married, with three daughters, he was one of the most respected and distinguished of the weapons experts advising the government. He had forged a long career of service in state institutions, including the top secret Defence Research Establishment at Porton Down, and was entrusted with routine access to some of the nation’s most sensitive confidential information.
He was also a friendly and popular person. "He had a kind word for everybody," his neighbour Ada Gunn recalled last night. "He really was a nice man."
Kelly, who began his career as a virologist with an interest in agriculture, rose to become senior adviser on biological warfare for the United Nations in Iraq: his progress, and ultimately his untimely downfall, were inextricably linked to the search for weapons of mass destruction inside Saddam Hussein’s empire.
"When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, little did I realise that Saddam Hussein would dictate the next 10 years of my life," he cheerfully told a group of American students in a fateful observation in 1999. Four years on, after visiting Iraq 37 times, contributing to the dossier that helped make Blair’s case for war and with Saddam now uprooted from power, Kelly had been looking forward to going back and finishing the job of uncovering the truth about his WMD programme. Tom Mangold, a former BBC journalist and close friend of Kelly, said: "His only ambition was to return to Iraq with a UN inspection team and find the evidence of WMD that has so far not been found."
His fate was dramatically altered by his decision to accept an invitation for "lunch and a chat" at the Charing Cross Hotel, central London, with BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan on May 22. Seven days after the meeting, Gilligan broadcast the report that was to trigger the most serious conflict between a government and the BBC for two decades, effectively accusing Blair’s spin-doctor Alastair Campbell of manipulating intelligence in the run-up to the war to bolster the case for military action.
Gilligan maintained that he had met the high-ranking source for his story at a hotel in the middle of London.
The allegations detonated a political storm above Kelly’s head. The government, intensely sensitive to criticism of its Iraq policy, particularly on the continued absence of the WMD proffered as a crucial justification for war, furiously denied the reports. While publicly dismissing the credibility of Gilligan’s story, they also began an immediate inquiry to find the mole - a "bona fide witch-hunt" according to one MoD insider.
He added: "If they didn’t believe Gilligan from the start, they made a hell of a job checking out his story.
"There aren’t many people here who have the level of access to information that Gilligan was talking about, but I think most of us felt like we were under suspicion."
Such was the escalating pressure surrounding Kelly as he began to realise he may have played a part in triggering the developing drama. He was, officially, banned from talking to journalists at all; much less contributing to allegations that could plunge the government’s entire position on Iraq into disrepute.
He had, however, a track record of dealing with the press through his exceptionally specialised and significant work. Kelly had made dozens of visits to Iraq as a United Nations inspector, and was one of the world’s leading experts on Saddam’s biological weapons. He routinely briefed reporters on the inspectors’ findings and thus regularly faced further inquiries for more information.
Kelly looked on as two separate inquiries into the decision to fight in Iraq were launched on the back of the report, and as Campbell and Gilligan gave bullish and wildly conflicting evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC).
The official explanation of what happened next maintains that Kelly came forward to volunteer his concerns, and colleagues agree that he did "the honourable thing". One fellow delegate at a recent seminar on the aftermath of Iraq teased him by saying "that sounds like pretty much the sort of thing you’d say". Kelly’s response was: "Well I’d better go and clear my name."
Sources within the MoD, however, insist that he was already under intolerable pressure to admit his possible involvement in the saga. One account insists that Kelly had been "tracked" for some time beforehand, and that he had actually been reported by one colleague who adjudged he had been "taking an unusually close interest" in the Gilligan story.
"He was a man of such honour that he finally came out of the trenches with his hands up and said ‘I’m the one who spoke to Gilligan’," Mangold said. "It’s unbelievable that this led to his death."
He added: "I guess he couldn’t cope with the firestorm that developed after he gave what he regarded as a routine briefing to Gilligan."
The agonising decision to come clean did not, however, deliver any relief to Kelly; instead it merely intensified his suffering. The civil servant was warned that he faced disciplinary action, and was then subjected to five days of interrogation by MoD officials desperate to ascertain what he had revealed to Gilligan.
Kelly was primed to become the conclusive weapon in the campaign to clear Alastair Campbell. Political aides last night distanced themselves from the process, joining Downing Street in shifting the blame on to MoD officers - notably the department’s permanent secretary, Sir Kevin Tebbit. "I didn’t even know this guy’s name before it was published," one source close to the Cabinet said.
But the manoeuvres that took Kelly from obscurity to a harrowing appearance before a committee of MPs on national television bore all the hallmarks of a New Labour spin operation. Desperate to ensure that his name remained secret, he agreed to a statement claiming a civil servant had admitted meeting Gilligan - but he was still warned that his name might become known.
Kelly was not warned that figures within the government were keen to see him ‘outed’ to reinforce their case against Gilligan and the BBC. A government spokesman broke normal procedures by confirming that Kelly was the ‘mole’ in response to a direct inquiry from one newspaper. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon named him in a ‘confidential’ letter to the BBC, challenging it to deny he was their source; and he was eventually named on July 10 by two newspapers citing claims that Downing Street was "99% certain" that he was the man.
The swift move to get him before the FAC was the final move in the campaign. By the time he reached the committee corridor last Tuesday he was already close to the edge. The change for the worse was evident even from afar. Hay, who is based at the University of Leeds, said: "I was so worried after I saw extracts of his evidence to the committee.
"He just looked so beaten by the process. I’m not sure that it was the pressure of the committee, but all the pressure that had been on him prior to that."
It was an issue which appears to have raised concerns within a government gleefully waiting for Kelly to destroy the BBC’s case for a waiting world. The MoD now admits that it made an unusual request for the committee to limit its inquisition to 45 minutes; Kelly was due to give evidence to the second inquiry, by the Intelligence &
Security Committee, later the same day. A senior figure on the FAC has told Scotland on Sunday that the department also took the unprecedented step of asking permission for Kelly to be accompanied by a ‘minder’ throughout his ordeal.
David Kelly was a tough man, and had faced fierce pressure from Saddam’s regime during his long-term involvement in his country. But the committee hearing was a harrowing, humiliating experience for a quietly spoken man unused to public interrogation.
When Kelly upset the apple-cart by denying that he was Gilligan’s source - "From the conversation I had with him, I do not see how he could make the authoritative statement he was making from the comments that I made" - the mood changed for the worse.
Kelly was subjected to a brow-beating from a group of MPs frustrated that they had been led up a blind alley. "I reckon you are chaff," said Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay. "You have been thrown up to divert our probing."
Ironically, in a letter to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that day, the committee accepted Kelly’s story - and complained about the government’s handling of his case.
"It seems most unlikely that Dr Kelly was Andrew Gilligan’s prime source," said committee chairman Donald Anderson. "Colleagues have also asked me to pass on their view that Dr Kelly has been poorly treated by the government since he wrote to his line manager, admitting that he had met Gilligan."
The observations came too late to console the scientist, however, and they cut little ice last night with the family and friends he left behind.
Kelly’s family were said to have complained that he was "deeply unhappy" at the public conflict into which he had been unwillingly dragged. "He was angry at how he had been treated by the committee," one friend said last night.
Significantly, however, it also emerged that the BBC was a target for the family’s anger. Kelly’s MP, the Tory Robert Jackson, gave full vent to the simmering fury that the BBC’s insistence on protecting its sources had, ironically, escalated the crisis which engulfed Kelly and ultimately led to his death.
"The BBC should examine its conscience, because the BBC was asked repeatedly to deny that he was [Gilligan’s] source and they refused to do so," Jackson said. "It was wrong for David Kelly to talk to a journalist and right for the government to have instigated a leak inquiry to investigate it. The government can’t be blamed for that. The question then is pressure he came under."
But Hay preferred to blame the politicians who had treated his friend like "a ping-pong ball".
"He’d been put in this position where he’d been used, and used abominably by the politicians," he said.
It was only his closest family who knew the true ordeal that Kelly had suffered in the eight short days between his admission to his bosses and the discovery of his body. His wife Janice hinted at the rapid decline in his spirits, telling a friend he was "very, very stressed and unhappy about what had happened.
"This was really not the kind of world he wanted to live in."
News makers: the men who spun the web that trapped David Kelly
ANDREW GILLIGAN: Won a reputation for breaking stories as a newspaper journalist, notably for the Sunday Telegraph, before joining the BBC as the defence correspondent for Radio 4’s Today programme in 1999. The 34-year-old Londoner was appointed with a brief from then-editor Rod Liddle to "cause trouble", and had previously irked the government over dispatches from Baghdad during the war when it was felt he was highlighting the failures of the coalition. It was his story that intelligence sources felt the dossier had been "sexed up" that started this row.
RICHARD SAMBROOK: The BBC’s director of news has steadfastly stood by his reporter and counter-attacked strongly against allegations of poor practice from Alastair Campbell. Sambrook, a former newspaper journalist, joined the BBC in 1980 and worked as a programme editor on various news programmes, including the Nine O’Clock News. He then became head of newsgathering, before taking charge in 2001 of its news operation, which employs 2,000 reporters. Sambrook told Campbell the BBC would not take lessons from a government which plagiarised its dossier on the Iraqi threat.
ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: The government’s combative director of communications stands accused of going on the offensive against the BBC to cynically divert attention from the continuing failure of coalition forces to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Campbell - who has often hinted he may resign - is also accused of letting personal enmity against Andrew Gilligan spoil his judgment. It was his determination to force a retraction - when others might have ignored the story - that led to Kelly being disastrously forced into the spotlight.
GEOFF HOON: The Defence Secretary authorised the release by the MoD of a statement which said an official had come forward to admit contact with Gilligan. Soon after, Kelly’s name was leaked to the press, although the MoD denies it is responsible. Hoon is accused effectively of thrusting Kelly into the limelight in a bid to discredit the BBC story and come to the defence of Campbell. Hoon, as head of the MoD, is accountable for the actions of the ministry.
SIR KEVIN TEBBIT: The 57-year-old permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence is likely to face questions over the events that led up to the naming of Kelly as Gilligan’s potential source. Tebbit took on the top job in the MoD after a stint in charge of the government’s communications monitoring centre at GCHQ. Officially, the MoD maintains Kelly was merely reprimanded for breaking Civil Service rules. Kelly’s friends, however, say he was "brutally" questioned and threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and the loss of his pension if he did not provide full details of his conversation with Gilligan.
ANDREW MacKINLAY: The Labour MP has been accused of hectoring Kelly when the expert gave evidence to the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs last Tuesday. In one exchange, Mackinlay demanded Kelly name all his journalist contacts, and when Kelly said he would provide it to the MoD, he demanded the committee be told now, loudly stating that "this is the High Court of Parliament". The Labour left-winger, who is no fan of New Labour, left Kelly shaken by claiming he was "chaff" and a "fall guy" designed to "divert our probing".
©Copyright 2003, The Scotsman (UK)
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