July 27, 2003
Minister's denial puts aides in firing line
THE judge heading the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly visited the scientist's widow yesterday as pressure mounted on Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, over his handling of the affair.
Lord Hutton visited the Kelly family home in Southmoor, Oxfordshire, and spent about an hour talking to Kelly's widow Janice. He is likely to have explained the remit of his forthcoming inquiry — expected to start this week — and that he might call her as a witness.
The judicial inquiry, ordered by Tony Blair after Kelly's body was discovered on July 18, will aim to establish why the Ministry of Defence scientist apparently took his life, and who was responsible for leaking his name after he admitted to his bosses that he had spoken to BBC journalists.
Hoon yesterday insisted he was not responsible for naming Kelly and that he personally went to great lengths to protect the scientist's anonymity. He said he would not quit. "I have no plans to resign and I don't see any reason why I should," he said. "One day I will, but certainly not in the near future."
His defiant language points to a struggle between the Ministry of Defence and No 10 over who in government should take responsibility for giving clues to Kelly's identity and confirming his name to journalists.
Hoon refused to comment on the details of an 80-minute meeting with Kelly's widow last Wednesday. But he is understood to have told Janice Kelly that he was sorry her husband was cast into the centre of a public row between the government and the BBC through the leaking of his name.
Hoon said the Hutton inquiry would establish the truth of his role in the affair. "I am looking forward to giving evidence," he said.
However, Hoon who was said to have called a press photographer "lowlife scum" during an altercation on Friday reacted angrily when asked whether his insistence that he was not personally to blame for the leak effectively shifted responsibility to the senior officials at his department.
"I don't think that is a fair question. You know as well as I do where the answer to that question leads."
But by declaring he was out of the decision-making loop, Hoon will start a battle at the top of his ministry.
The spotlight will now fall on Pam Teare, the MoD's head of press, who confirmed Kelly's name to journalists, and Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary, who discussed with other senior officials how press inquiries should be handled.
In briefings and statements issued the week before Kelly's death, the MoD and No 10 said the BBC's source had been a UN weapons inspector, an expert in arms control and a civil servant. Those and other clues pointed incontrovertibly to Kelly.
Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's communications chief, who is expected to be called before Hutton to answer questions about his role in the leaking of Kelly's name, was reported to have left yesterday for a holiday in France amid growing speculation about when he will leave his job.
Friends said that Fiona Millar, Campbell's girlfriend, gave him a "Tony or me" ultimatum earlier this year. Millar, an adviser to Cherie Blair, will leave No 10 in the autumn. The couple have two sons and a daughter. A friend said: "Alastair has long been conscious that his boys are getting towards their mid-teens, which can be a very difficult time."
Campbell recently told one friend he had "one more big job" outside Westminster to do. Last night there was speculation he would join a new "kitchen cabinet", also including Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister, and Philip Gould, the government's chief pollster, to formulate the party's strategy in the run-up to the next election. Campbell has told friends he still expects to speak daily with Blair after leaving his current job.
The Kelly affair is now set to engulf the intelligence services. Some members of the intelligence and security committee believe MI6 was selective in its use of intelligence and gave an unbalanced impression of the Iraqi threat.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the chief of MI6, was said to have been given a "rough ride" by MPs when he was questioned in private 10 days ago about claims in the government's dossier that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium ore from Niger, and over the warning that Iraq could deploy chemical weapons in 45 minutes.
The committee praised Kelly, whose evidence they had heard the previous day, and said they were "impressed by his knowledge". Kelly had reservations about how intelligence material was presented in the dossier. The report is expected to be published after the recall of parliament in September.
Kelly expressed his fears over the dossier to fellow members of the eastern Baha'i faith last October. One said: "He felt frustrated by the way it had been interpreted. But he did not say who by."
In addition to Hutton's inquiry, Kelly's death and the handling of intelligence on Iraq are being investigated by two parliamentary committees, Thames Valley police and the Oxfordshire coroner.
Police last week interviewed Terry Taylor, head of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Washington, who spoke to Kelly four days before his death.
Taylor, one of Kelly's closest friends, said he was shocked by the scientist's death because there was nothing in his behaviour to suggest he was suicidal. Taylor said Kelly was organising a 40-strong British team heading for Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction. He was to leave for Baghdad on July 18, the day after his death.
Last night, there was a further escalation in the row between the BBC and the government over the Iraq dossier sparked by a report from the defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan for which Kelly was the main source.
Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, made an uncompromising defence of the corporation's editorial independence. He warned the BBC would not be intimidated by veiled threats that the Iraq row would affect renewal of its charter.
Davies wrote: "We are chastised for taking a different view on editorial matters from that of the government and its supporters. Because we have had the temerity to do this, it is hinted that a system that has protected the BBC for 80 years should be swept away and replaced by an external regulator that will 'bring the BBC to heel'."
Davies' comments came amid reports that current and former ministers had threatened the corporation with "vengeance" if it did not yield in the dossier affair.
However, a spokesman for the culture department said last night: "The review of the BBC charter that will start at the end of this year will be radical and wide ranging . . . [but] there is no question of it being used to settle scores."
Davies and Greg Dyke, the BBC director-general, have cancelled their summer holidays to prepare for the Hutton inquiry. They stand behind reports from Gilligan and others that Campbell had a hand in overplaying intelligence reports. Dyke, however, is said to be "worried about discrepancies" between the story on the Iraq dossier run by Gilligan and those of other BBC reporters who also based their accounts on Kelly's testimony.
Additional reporting: Dipesh Gadher
©Copyright 2003, The Sunday Times (UK)
Following is the URL to the original story. The site may have removed or archived this story. URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-758395,00.html