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Back to Newspaper articles archive: 2003


Sat 27 Sep 2003

The last desperate days of Dr David Kelly

THE Charing Cross hotel in London is unusually opulent for a railway station stopover. Yet it is not on the circuit of media haunts - when David Kelly made his way there to meet one of the many journalists he’d befriended, they were unlikely to be spotted.

The imbroglio started with a Coke and Appletise at the hotel bar - it ended with Dr Kelly’s death and the reputations of Downing Street and the BBC both savaged. Only now that the Hutton Inquiry has finished, is it possible to see the event from the perspective of the man himself.

The meeting in the hotel started the last week that Dr Kelly would consider normal. Briefing a BBC journalist such as Andrew Gilligan was by no means unusual - as Britain’s leading expert on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons who had been deployed in Iraq and to the United Nations, he was used to being courted.

The Ministry of Defence had given him a written licence for such contact, as no-one else on its staff could hope to explain the intricacies of the work that Dr Kelly knew backwards. He was the main source for Britain’s government and its media.

The power of this position was not lost on Dr Kelly. "He was quite proud that he had many press contacts, from diverse backgrounds," said Wing Commander John Clark, a Scot with whom he occasionally shared an office in the MoD.

Yet no-one, even in the MoD, seemed to know how large his role was. He worked from home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, choosing from a pile of seven laptops - sometimes working for the Foreign Office, other times for the MoD.

His unrivalled expertise made him wanted by not just rival Whitehall departments, but the United Nations and the UK weapons inspectorate. The problem - one that played heavily on his mind - was which of his many bosses would pay his pension in his coming retirement.

He had recently learned that he would have to retire at 60, not 65 - and that his pension was dependent on his final salary which was not fixed. For perhaps the first time in his meteoric career as a world-renowned microbiologist, he was having anxieties about his job.

Outside work, he had little hinterland. He played cribbage at the Hind’s Head, the local village pub, and met friends there - but he did not drink, having converted to the Baha’i faith while in the US. However, his confidantes were mostly those with whom he worked.

His friends had begun to include the journalists he so frequently spoke to. Tom Mangold, a veteran documentary maker and author, was perhaps the closest. Dr Kelly had spoken to Mr Gilligan in the latter’s days at the Sunday Telegraph, but their relationship had not developed into friendship.

Mr Gilligan has just returned from post-war Iraq. Dr Kelly was interested to compare notes, and - unusually - made the two-hour journey so they could meet up.

Their liaison lasted 45 minutes - a figure which was to recur time and again, and its contents remained one of the most hotly-contested parts of the affair. Mr Gilligan said he found a quietly outraged Dr Kelly who said the Iraq dossier had been "transformed" in the days leading up to its publication - and, when asked how, gave a one-word answer: "Campbell".

An alternative version of events, from Olivia Bosch, a friend of Dr Kelly’s and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says he returned rather disturbed saying that Mr Gilligan had tried to play a "name game" and had himself brought up Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s communications director.

Whatever the truth, Dr Kelly made little attempt to cover up the meeting. Then, it was not contentious - Mr Gilligan’s story would not be broadcast for a week. He told not only Ms Bosch but Patrick Lamb, a Foreign Office official.

This was not a man who was afraid of being lambasted for briefing against the government. But his frankness bordered on the brazen - we now know that he was contradicting Tony Blair’s version of events to Susan Watts, the science editor of BBC Newsnight.

Her tape recordings and notes show that Dr Kelly was far more forthcoming than he would later lead the MoD to believe. While not a "a member of the intelligence community," he told her, he was indeed "a user of intelligence". That is to say, an intelligence source.

"Of course, I’m very familiar with a lot of it. That’s why I’m asked to comment on it," he told her.

As for the dossier, Dr Kelly said: "I reviewed the whole thing. I was involved in the whole process. This, it is now clear, exaggerates his importance. These inconsistencies were pulling Dr Kelly into dangerous waters. Soon, his every word was to be scrutinised - and used to adjudicate an almighty battle between Downing Street and the BBC.

On Thursday, 29 May, the Prime Minister was flying to Kuwait to deliver a victory speech to troops which was to be entirely overshadowed by Mr Gilligan’s news story - based on an "intelligence source" now known to be Dr Kelly.

The next day, Ms Watts rang Dr Kelly and asked him "did I miss a trick?" It was an understatement - when they spoke earlier, he had mentioned Mr Campbell’s name and also told her that a well-known US journalist was in league with an Iraqi opposition party.

This, too, was an excellent story which went on to become front-page news in the New York Times.

WORD of Dr Kelly’s involvement was passing around MoD officials - who, as the Hutton Inquiry has shown, gossip like fishwives. Dr Kelly was approached by a friend at the Royal United Services Institute asking if he was the source.

There was a telltale sign. Dr Kelly had said there was a 35 per cent chance of Saddam Hussein owning weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war - a figure which had been repeated by journalists. It had Dr Kelly’s fingerprints all over it.

That weekend, Dr Kelly decided to go public - writing a carefully worded letter to Bryan Wells, his MoD line manager, saying he spoke to Mr Gilligan but denying much of the report’s claims.

"I most certainly have never attempted to undermine government policy in any way," he said. This was not strictly true.

On the Friday, he was called back in for questioning and warned that it could be a matter for disciplinary action - but no threats were made. He was warned that the MoD might say that an unnamed official may have to come forward but, crucially, not that he would be named.

None of this was discussed with his wife. "He would never tell me the nature of his meetings," Janice Kelly told Lord Hutton.

She did not expect to know more. His sister told the inquiry how, a decade ago, she was reading the obituary of a Russian microbiologist who had defected and asked Dr Kelly if he had heard of him. Yes, he replied, he spent weeks in a hotel interrogating him.

The Kelly family were used to his work being a separate world. All they knew that weekend was that he was due in RAF Honington, in Suffolk in preparation for the dispatch of a team of weapons inspectors to Iraq.

HE HAD bid goodbye to his wife, who expected not to see him for another couple of days.

Instead, he was intercepted by the MoD and asked to come to London for a briefing.

Although he didn’t know it, this was at the Prime Minister’s request. "He rang me. He was on a train going to London for an interview. He did not say what that interview was about... I did not pick up any kind of stress factor from him at all," she said.

In London, on the Monday, he was shown the press statement they intended to release. He was an "unnamed official" - his identity was not to be confirmed. Dr Kelly was about to enter the most bitter struggle in the history of tension between the BBC and 10 Downing Street - but he simply returned to RAF Honington and completed the course.

At 6pm the next day, he returned home to Abingdon. His wife thought he seemed "quiet" - she suggested they watch television.

"He seemed a bit reluctant to watch the news," she said. That was because he already knew what it would be: that Mr Gilligan’s source had identified himself.

"Immediately David said to me, ‘It’s me’. My reaction was total dismay. My heart sank I knew then he was aware his name would be in the public domain quite soon. He confirmed that feeling of course."

In the only insight into his state of mind so far, she said he seemed "desperately unhappy about it, really really unhappy about it. Totally dismayed." The MoD, he told her, had "not been unsupportive" - but he said it could mean a pension problem, or his dismissal.

As the television news continued its coverage, Dr Kelly told his wife that he could lose the job he devoted so much of his life to - or that he may, indeed, have his pension reduced. He was 59 and due to retire at 60 on a pension linked to his final salary: this was a deep worry.

From then on, he knew a storm was about to engulf him. But he stayed at home and worked on his vegetable patch. In the few times he spoke to his wife, he told her he felt "totally let down and betrayed" by the MoD. He was digging, she said, in "a rather lacklustre way".

She added that he "did receive and make some phone calls as well".

OF THESE, we now know that 12 were to Brian Wells, at the MoD, who was on a train with patchy reception. His message, delivered in a curt 46 seconds, was that the press had, indeed, managed to deduce his name.

This was not news to Dr Kelly. He was having tea with his wife in his garden, went to return some tools to his shed and suddenly found Nick Rufford, a journalist at the Sunday Times, who had turned up uninvited in Abingdon.

Their six-minute conversation was to be portrayed as a sit-down interview in that Sunday’s newspaper. In fact, it was a terse meeting where Mr Rufford tried to cut a deal with Dr Kelly - he would find a hotel for him and his wife in return for a newspaper article.

To enforce his point, Mr Rufford warned that the press pack was on their way "in droves", to quote Mrs Kelly. Their conversation grew tense; she heard Dr Kelly say "please leave now". He returned to tell her that things were getting nasty.

Around 8pm, the MoD called to advise him to leave his house. There were no preparations, nothing organised - just a blunt message that the press would soon be on their way. The effect of this message was immediate.

Within ten minutes, Dr Kelly and his wife had packed and were driving down the M4 - his mobile phone ringing all the time, and her pleading with him not to answer. By the time the reached the hotel, at 9:30pm, Dr Kelly’s name could be seen in the first edition of the Times.

The same newspaper was delivered to the Kellys’ room the next day - and with it, the start of the character assassination coming from Whitehall. Dr Kelly was described as a lowly official, whose importance was obviously exaggerated by Mr Gilligan.

IT IS now clear that these jibes hurt the most. No10 wanted to belittle Mr Gilligan by portraying Dr Kelly as a junior source who could not have possibly known what was going on. To a man of such personal pride, this was crushing.

He spoke little as he drove his wife to Cornwall. She was speaking of their trip as a holiday; they decided to visit the Eden Project. A biologist and gardener like Dr Kelly would normally have been interested; his thoughts were elsewhere.

He called Ms Bosch, who confirmed that officials were naming him - and that, by all accounts, the knives were out. Downing Street was about to belittle him further: to a mere "technician."

The next day in Cornwall, Dr Kelly spent the morning on the phone and was told that the MoD were explaining that he would have to appear in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee the next week.

Mr Wells called to confirm the worst: the hearing would be televised. "He went ballistic. He just did not like that idea at all. He felt it -- he did not say this in so many words but he felt it would be a kind of continuation of a kind of reprimand into the public domain," said his wife. Dr Kelly could see he was being hung out to dry.

His instinct was not to confide in his wife, but to retreat into himself. "He was in a world of his own. He was really quite stressed, very strained, and conversation was extremely difficult," she said.

On the Saturday, when they visited the Eden Project, Dr Kelly seemed inconsolable. "In all the Russian visits, all the difficulties he had in Iraq, where he had lots of discomforts, lots of horrors, guns pointing at him, munitions left lying around, I had never known him to be as unhappy as he was then," his wife told Lord Hutton.

He was then summoned to London to be briefed - or "schooled" as Mr Campbell’s diary put it - and decided to stay with his daughter in the city of Oxford, not the London hotel offered by the MoD.

The foreign affairs committee itself was every bit as bad as he could imagine. His voice was so soft that officials had to turn off the air-conditioning to make him out. The worst punches were from Andrew Mackinlay, who suggested he was "chaff" and the "fall guy".

Politicians know to shrug off these insults but they cut Dr Kelly to the bone. In his study lay a letter suggesting he was being considered for a knighthood - yet when he did come to the public eye, it was to be vilified. He was too intelligent not to realise that worse was on the way. His had been less than frank during the MoD interrogation - he had, indeed, undermined the government’s line on Iraq. And some journalists had him doing so on tape.

The next day, a Wednesday, the Prime Minister himself joined in the fray - mentioning Dr Kelly by name and demanding that the BBC confirm that he was Mr Gilligan’s source. If that happened, his conversations with all journalists would be compared to his MMC evidence.

Back in Abingdon, Dr Kelly would have realised that his every word was being used to adjudicate between No10 and the BBC - and he knew he had been economical with the truth. There was every chance that he might also be denounced as a liar.

At 9am the next morning, he started work preparing a list of journalists he had spoken to, in response to the MP. By mid-morning he sat in the living room in silence. To his wife, he looked distracted and dejected.

She showed him photographs from her historical society meetings but could not cheer him up. Feeling sudden fatigue, often brought on by her arthritis, she went to lie down.

Dr Kelly said he would go for a walk - he didn’t leave until 3:20pm. After half an hour, his wife began to worry: his traditional walk, a remedy for his bad back, normally took 15 minutes.

He had not walked far. He had left his mobile at home - something he never normally did - and had taken his Scout knife. He stopped under a tree, rolled up his left sleeve and tried to cut his wrist. At first, he only scratched - but on his fifth attempt, he hit an artery and began to lose blood fast.

The police filled in the last few details. His corpse was found the next evening at 6pm, with all the hallmarks of a suicide. Except the note.

In a way, it fitted the character of this intensely private man to leave without explaining himself. He had never done so when alive - and seemed unable to break this pattern when choosing death.

He occupied twin worlds: one of desert, dictatorship, biological warfare and interrogation which was entirely his own -and the other the English village life of pub lunches, cribbage, and walks in the Oxfordshire wood.

It was a balancing act which ended in the worst possible way this summer. With his self-esteem crushed, the torture which had consumed his private world proved too much to bear.

Winners and losers: Who's down after the inquiry

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

ALASTAIR Campbell gave two polished performances during the Hutton Inquiry, but his reputation took a battering thanks to entries made in his diaries.

His desire to "f***" Andrew Gilligan by exposing the source of his story attracted some of the most negative headlines of the inquiry.

His decision to resign as Tony Blair’s communications director means that even if he is criticised by Lord Hutton, his departure will deflect damage from No10.

Some believe his diaries were a final act of spin for Mr Blair, who came out well in the hand-written entries.

ANDREW GILLIGAN

ANDREW Gilligan, an ex-Sunday newspaper journalist, was employed by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as a "troublemaker".

He has a reputation as a digger of dirt, something that had made him a hate figure at No10 long before the Hutton Inquiry.

His admissions to the inquiry that he had made errors in his infamous "45-minute" broadcast have led to demands he be sacked.

However, although it is likely that Mr Gilligan will be moved from frontline reporting for the BBC’s flagship news programme, another berth will be found for him.

JAMES DINGEMANS

THE inquiry QC’s persistence in following the timetable set down for the Hutton Inquiry was without doubt the mark of the man.

He was selected by Lord Hutton to be counsel to the inquiry into Dr David Kelly’s death precisely because he is not a grandstanding QC, but rather a precise and understated master of the facts.

The career of James Dingemans is set to receive a significant boost after his role as star inquisitor.

The barrister’s London chambers have been deluged with requests for Mr Dingemans to appear in a range of cases after he is released from his inquiry duties.

LORD HUTTON

LORD HUTTON’S long involvement with the secret services made him well placed to investigate the world of intelligence and political intrigue surrounding Dr David Kelly’s death.

He has been a judge for 24 years and was Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland from 1988 to 1997.

Known as a meticulous investigator, Lord Hutton’s remit is to "conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly".

He has already made clear that he will decide, "as I think right, the matters which will be the subject of my investigation".

GEOFF HOON

GEOFF Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is seen as the most likely sacrificial lamb who will pay the ultimate price for any criticism of the government by Lord Hutton.

Although he has fought a heavy battle to defend his reputation throughout the Kelly saga, it is clear he is politically damaged.

Mr Hoon has been a loyal Blairite throughout his time in government.

However, he has commited a string of political gaffes since the death of Dr Kelly, including opting to go on a family holiday rather than stay behind in Britain to attend the weapons expert’s funeral.

JOHN SCARLETT

JOHN Scarlett is a former MI6 officer - serving for 30 years - a fluent Russian speaker and, as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Prime Minister’s most influential secret service adviser.

But he is also Alastair Campbell’s "mate" (Campbell’s phrase), and his close relationship with the Prime Minister’s communications director helps to explain how the government’s Iraq dossier was put together.

Although Mr Scarlett was in charge, it is clear that he and Mr Campbell collaborated a great deal in the run-up to publication of the document.

©Copyright 2003, The Scotsman (UK)

Following is the URL to the original story. The site may have removed or archived this story. URL: http://www.thescotsman.co.uk/index.cfm?id=1070192003


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