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28 September 2003 00:42

The Hutton Inquiry: The conclusions

28 September 2003

This summer some of the country's most powerful figures and finest legal minds converged on the Royal Courts of Justice in London for the inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly. The evidence took us behind the scenes in Downing Street, Whitehall and the BBC. We learnt how the Government's September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was put together, and what happened after the BBC's Andrew Gilligan reported Dr Kelly saying that it had been "sexed up" by Alastair Campbell, then Tony Blair's closest aide. As Lord Hutton retires to write his report, Raymond Whitaker reviews the testimony and apportions blame in an affair that brought three mavericks - Kelly, Gilligan and Campbell - and the institutions they served into a conflict that ended in tragedy

Three of the country's most expensive QCs were chatting in an empty Court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London as they waited for the Hutton inquiry to resume after a lunch break.

"This is the most unusual case I've ever been involved in," said one. "It's the closest I'm ever likely to get to the inquisitorial system," said another. But a resem- blance to Continental judicial methods, which allow judges to explore the issues rather than choosing between two adversaries, was not the only way in which the inquiry was out of the ordinary.

Established to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly, it has ranged much wider during 23 days of hearings, in which evidence has been taken from more than 70 witnesses, and 787 documents have been handed over. Every word uttered and thousands of pages of documentary evidence were posted on the internet; for the first time in any British judicial proceedings, the public was able to see the raw material of recent history. The emails, draft documents and hand-written notes have given us a unique insight into the daily workings of Downing Street, Whitehall, the BBC and, to a limited extent, the intelligence world.

Lord Hutton said on Thursday that he hopes to report in December, perhaps November. But many will already have drawn their conclusions about the events triggered by the interview Dr Kelly gave to the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan on 22 May, and the background against which they were meeting: the Government's campaign to justify war in Iraq, and the failure afterwards to find the weapons of mass destruction on which it had built its case.

The dossier: why was it so wrong?

Whether intelligence assessments of the threat from Iraq were right or wrong "is not the issue now before us", Jonathan Sumption, the Government's QC, told the inquiry. It does matter, however, for the credibility of the Government and its intelligence advisers.

The issue Lord Hutton has to decide is whether the dossier was "sexed up" at the behest of Downing Street, as Mr Gilligan reported his source as saying. Dr Kelly said the "classic example" was the claim that Iraq had WMD ready for use in 45 minutes, though the BBC has admitted that he did not say Downing Street had inserted it into the dossier over the objections of the intelligence services.

The inquiry - unlike the Foreign Affairs Committee - saw drafts of the dossier that showed the language of the claim had indeed changed, though the most important alteration was made by John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The intelligence spoke of chemical and biological "munitions"; Mr Scarlett used the word "weapons". When the press took that to mean strategic rather than battlefield weapons, neither he nor Alastair Campbell, then Downing Street's director of communications, nor Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, saw fit to correct the impression.

The evidence also showed that Mr Campbell suggested a smaller change to the 45-minute section that strengthened the language: purely within his remit to advise on presentation, he and Mr Scarlett insisted. Although they exchanged memos on the proposed alterations, they later told the Foreign Affairs Committee that their recollection did not include any discussion of the 45-minute point.

More damaging was the revelation that Mr Scarlett had changed the document at the last minute, after the deadline for intelligence agencies to voice objections, in response to an email from Downing Street's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. He complained that the dossier supported the argument that Saddam Hussein would use WMD only if he was attacked. According to Mr Scarlett, this prompted him to check the intelligence again, and to realise Mr Powell was right.

The result was that the impression of the Iraqi dictator as an aggressor was heightened. The same effect was achieved by another last-minute decision: to alter the dossier's title to "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction" rather than Iraq's "programme" for WMD. Again, Mr Scarlett took responsibility for the change. The inquiry learnt that reservations among lower-level spooks were minimised or brushed aside.

But the greater the insistence that procedures for producing the dossier were "watertight", the greater the need to explain why so much of it has proved so wildly wrong. The Iraq Survey Group has just said that it cannot find any WMD at all; even proof of Iraq's evil intent is proving elusive.

The Government: hurt by Campbell's obsession

When Mr Campbell first appeared at the Hutton inquiry on 19 August, he was Downing Street's director of communications and strategy, one of only two political advisers to the Prime Minister who had authority to give orders to civil servants. By the time he was recalled just over a month later, he had stepped down from the powerful position he had occupied since Labour took office in 1997.

The announcement of his departure, halfway through the hearings, led to intense examination of the ensuing testimony to see what might have caused it. Could it be about to emerge that he had intervened personally to "sex up" the dossier? Was there evidence that he had contacted Dr Kelly himself?

The only plausible reason emerged last week: the release of further extracts from his diaries, which showed his glee at the news that an official had come forward to say he had met Mr Gilligan, and that his account conflicted with the BBC man's. "It would fuck Gilligan if that was his source," wrote Mr Campbell, who then recorded his efforts to persuade Tony Blair and others to "get the source out".

"The response is like that of a playground bully," said Heather Rogers, Mr Gilligan's counsel. The tone certainly undermined the protestations of numerous politicians and civil servants that their only concern had been to correct the public record and undo a slur against the integrity of the Government and the intelligence services. If the charges made by the BBC had been true, Mr Blair told the inquiry, he would have had to resign, but the opinion polls show that the whole episode has hurt him as well as the Government.

The Prime Minister emerges reasonably well in the new diary entries, which indicate that he held back Mr Campbell and told him to let civil servants handle the matter. But Mr Hoon had his evidence starkly contradicted. No sooner had he denied a conspiracy to leak Dr Kelly's name than the Campbell diary said he was "almost as steamed up as I was" and shared Mr Campbell's urge to out the scientist. And a late-surfacing email appeared to make it clear that the Defence Secretary ultimately took the decision to get Dr Kelly's name out.

It is widely assumed that Mr Hoon, directly accused of lying by the Kelly family, will go when Lord Hutton reports. He will leave a government that has been revealed at the inquiry as obsessed with the next day's headlines. We learnt that at one point the Prime Minister's two most senior advisers, as well as the permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence and the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, were crowded round the computer of Godric Smith, one of Mr Blair's two official spokesmen, as he worked on the press statement announcing that Mr Gilligan's probable source had come forward.

The BBC: flawed but fighting

The Campbell onslaught that followed Mr Gilligan's "sexing-up" reports of 29 May was so all-encompassing, the inquiry was told, that the BBC felt its independence was at stake. But internal emails early in the dispute described the Prime Minister's aide as "bonkers" and "flapping in the wind". There was some justice in Mr Sumption's claim that the BBC, at least initially, "seem to have regarded this as a routine piece of political mud-slinging".

The corporation argues that the row had died down by the time Mr Campbell appeared nearly a month later at the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he brushed aside questions about the dossier and insisted the real issue was the BBC. He followed up with a detailed list of questions to the corporation, demanding answers by the end of the day. The letter had been given to the press before it even arrived. "This stampede tactic was not a dignified way for a government to behave," argued Andrew Caldecott QC for the BBC.

The problem for the BBC was that it took the word of Mr Gilligan that he stood by every aspect of his story. Even when it became clear that some of his most controversial claims were not supported by his notes from the Kelly interview, the corporation felt unable to back down. The director-general, Greg Dyke, seemed remote from the issue when he appeared in the witness box: a showman rather than an editor-in-chief. The BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, was far more obdurate, insisting it was not the job of the governors to check the facts themselves.

But the BBC did have a tape of Dr Kelly, recorded by the Newsnight journalist Susan Watts, which made it clear that the scientist held many of the views quoted by Mr Gilligan. The Government never uttered a word of complaint about her stories, Mr Caldecott pointed out. Was that because she - unlike the Today reporter - did not name Mr Campbell?

As the flaws in Mr Gilligan's reporting were exposed, daylight began to appear between him and his employers. The Kelly family's QC, Jeremy Gompertz, noted that the BBC had admitted mistakes and accepted criticism, while not a hint of contrition had been heard from Westminster or Whitehall. How this will weigh with Lord Hutton remains to be seen: he has clearly been unimpressed with the argument that there is a difference between the BBC reporting serious accusations made by a source, and supporting the accusations itself.

But just as the inquiry has made it impossible for Mr Campbell to continue in his job, the same is true of Mr Gilligan: it has already been made known that he will not be returning to Today.

The civil service: supine, rule-bound

After weeks of Whitehall functionaries triumphantly citing minutes and memos recording that everyone present at a meeting was "content" with whatever action was being discussed, it was a shock to see one of them break down in the witness box. Patrick Lamb, a Foreign Office arms

control official, choked on his words as he recounted how Dr Kelly had asked him to come to the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, where he was grilled live on television by MPs. This was the first time he realised the scientist valued him. But Dr Kelly was appearing as a Ministry of Defence official, said Mr Lamb, and would have to be accompanied by MoD staff.

It was a rare glimpse of humanity in the official treatment of Dr Kelly. The chief civil servant in the MoD, Sir Kevin Tebbit, insisted on "natural justice" for the scientist, but backed off when Downing Street got involved. Dr Kelly was never told the MoD press office would confirm his identity if journalists guessed right. He discovered his name had got out in a mobile phone call by his MoD manager, Dr Bryan Wells, who was cut off after 46 seconds.

Apart from Mr Hoon, Mr Gompertz directed his most withering scorn at Richard Hatfield, the MoD's personnel director, who said that in the light of later facts, he might have suspended Dr Kelly and started formal disciplinary proceedings. He insisted, however, that the scientist had been given "outstanding" support - a claim that would be risible if the matter were not so serious, said the QC.

The civil servants involved took great pains to record how they had carried out their instructions, but at many of the meetings where decisions were taken, nobody seems to have kept minutes. No doubt coincidentally, this appears to have happened when the "special adviser" culture of New Labour came into contact with the traditional Whitehall bureaucracy.

Why did David Kelly kill himself?

As a weapons inspector Dr Kelly had dealt with intimidation in Iraq and the Soviet Union. He was Britain's leading expert on biological warfare, and frequently dealt with journalists. Yet in many ways he was an innocent who was unprepared for the storm that broke over him early this summer.

He was deeply sensitive and private, and did not even tell his wife what was going on until they were watching the TV news, which reported that an MoD official had admitted meeting Mr Gilligan. Given his temperament, he was not likely to unburden himself to his much younger line manager in the MoD, Dr Wells.

Despite his eminence, neither Dr Kelly nor anyone else seemed certain who was responsible for him in the government structure, particularly when it came to his pay and status. That this preyed on him is seen by a letter he wrote on the issue to his superiors just after 11 September 2001, when most people had other things on their minds.

Could some sense of resentment be partly responsible for the fact that he spoke so freely to journalists? A convert to the Baha'i faith who watched in dismay as Britain and the US headed for war with Iraq, he seems to have staged a quiet rebellion, only to commit suicide on discovering the consequences. Exhaustive police inquiries and forensic investigation leave no doubt on the latter point; the judge will have to determine the former as best he can.

One thing appears to unite Mr Gilligan, Mr Campbell and Dr Kelly, despite their very different personalities. To some extent, all three were mavericks within the institutions for which they worked. The resulting conflict led to the death of one of them, and the rest of us are still working out the cost.

©Copyright 2003, The Independent (UK)

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