The unpalatable truth
The sad truth to emerge from the Hutton inquiry is the random nature of events that led to Dr David Kelly’s tragic, lonely death: Iraq had become an addiction for David Kelly, writes Tim Adams.
Harrowdown Hill is oddly marooned on the broad flood plain of the upper reaches of the River Thames. A couple of weeks ago, I walked out towards this thickly wooded little eminence, along the path from the village of Longworth, a few winding kilometres west of Oxford.
This was the path, between high hedges of blackberry and hawthorn, that Dr David Kelly took in the early afternoon of July 17. It was a walk the scientist made most days when he was at home, part of a strategy against his bad back. Sometimes Kelly walked out here with one of his three grown-up daughters. That Friday, though, he was very much alone. He carried with him a knife he’d had since boy scout days, several little sheets of the painkiller coproxamol, which his wife had been storing up against her arthritis, and a small bottle of water.
I had gone to Harrowdown Hill, as something of a last resort, to retrace this final walk of Kelly’s. For a good part of this longest, hottest British summer, I had sat in room No. 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, or in the overflow marquee in the courtyard outside. In that time, I had been trying to work out many things, but mostly — along with Lord Hutton, ranks of lawyers and a battalion of journalists — the reasons why, on that July afternoon, Kelly felt compelled to follow this path, to sit down on a particular hill, remove his spectacles and his wristwatch, and to take his own life.
Despite the unprecedented library of emails, transcripts and correspondence netted by the inquiry headed by Hutton into Kelly's death — and despite Hutton's unstinting focus and the extraordinary mental stamina of James Dingemans QC, Kelly's representative on earth, and despite the parade of routinely eloquent and often surprisingly candid politicians, journalists and civil servants on the stand in court — the motivation behind Kelly's suicide still seemed fleeting and elusive.
The walk was an attempt to make it a little more real. Partly the elusiveness had to do with the shifting scope of the inquiry itself. While, ostensibly, it involved Kelly, from the start there was a desire from all quarters — despite Hutton's best efforts — to have it examine much more.
Half the country looked at it as a way of further embarrassing Prime Minister Tony Blair over Iraq. The British Government, conversely, or at least that part of it in the power of press secretary Alastair Campbell, latched on to the inquiry as, at best, a distraction from the absence of weapons of mass destruction (and the real dodgy dossier), and at worst, a way of finally shaming the BBC.
As I walked towards the stubborn little hill, past a dozen black cows looking up from their feed, no other living soul in sight, some details from the previous six weeks of evidence came to mind.
Two odd fragments in particular snagged in my head. The first was something Kelly’s wife said. Janice Kelly’s evidence, given by video link, had been, in the context of so much self-importance and self-justification (and so much expensive tailoring) a very English model of dignity and restraint.
There were, she recalled, several stages of her husband’s "belittling". It began with the constant reference, based on briefings by the Ministry of Defence, to him as a "middle-ranking official". This, despite the fact he had led inspection teams in Iraq, and was, by many accounts, Britain's foremost expert on biological and chemical warfare. Reading these reports, Kelly had felt he was being treated as "a fly"; his wife believed that he was "used up".
The worst of this, it seemed to me, was a comment made by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Kelly had accompanied him as an expert during his questioning last year at the Foreign Affairs Committee. Kelly had sat beside Straw on that occasion, and, when the information about the source of the BBC report came out, the Government was worried that this proximity would be used as evidence of his elevated status.
With this in mind, presumably, Straw commented, in retrospect, cruelly and casually that "he had, in fact, been upset at the technical support at that committee meeting, that he had been accompanied by somebody so junior . . ."
What had seemed to Kelly a rare moment of public acknowledgement of the important and dangerous work he had committed his life to, had, with quick spin, been turned into a source of humiliation — a first chapter, Kelly must have felt, in the rewriting of his own history.
The second story that came into my mind also involved a rewrite of a sort. It was, at first, just a throwaway comment, something Kelly’s sister mentioned in her evidence. Sarah Pape, a consultant plastic surgeon, was talking about how, in the week that Kelly was named and he and his wife took off for Cornwall, he had phoned her to explain the situation. She had asked all the obvious questions and then suggested that "mum and my brother and sister were also fully supportive of him . . ."
At the time, this hardly seemed worthy of noting, but later, when it became clear that the family Pape must have been referring to was Kelly’s step-family, and that she was his step-sister, it struck me rather differently. I had a sudden sense then of how Kelly, perhaps a victim of the second Iraq War, was born into a different conflict.
His father, we discovered in court, had been married only six months when he went to fight in World War II; Kelly was only a toddler when he returned, and his parents’ marriage abruptly ended. He was subsequently raised mostly by his grandmother. His mother, who suffered a stroke when he was in his teens, took her own life, he believed, when he was at university. This was a fact which, in a piece of clinical understatement, was said to have "caused him some difficulty".
In the light of this, Pape’s simple message of support somehow took on a slightly different edge as I walked along the empty path: it felt like evidence not so much of Kelly’s strong family ties, but as an indication of a further sense of aloneness.
One of the hardest things to get a grip of in Court 73 was a sense of scale. You imagine that was a problem, too, for Kelly. The great public events that led to his very private silence were set in a world that seems a long, long way down river from Harrowdown Hill. It did not help that they seemed to have been set in motion with a single word. That word was uttered at 6.07am on Radio 4’s Today program. The word was "erm".
The "erm" came in the middle of a sentence that BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan has undoubtedly lived to regret having let "slip out". It betrayed the momentary pause in which his mouth indulged in a little piece of wishful thinking that his brain was not quite alert or willing enough to edit. "And what we’ve been told by one of the senior figures involved in drawing up the dossier was that, actually the government probably, erm, knew that that 45-minute figure (a claim of the time in which Iraq could launch an attack with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was wrong, even before it decided to put it in . . ."
Looking back now, we might read an awful lot into that "erm". Whenever Dingemans read it out in court, it came with the subliminally expressed professional disdain lawyers reserve for indecision. In the future we might look at it, at the very least, as the moment when the notion of a "two-way", the unscripted conversation between presenter and reporter on matters of high sensitivity, was abandoned by the BBC. At a push, we might also say that it was the moment in which Kelly’s fate was sealed.
At the time, though, it was just a pause, probably not quite long enough, for thought. The Kelly story was the second item to that morning’s program, intended not so much as news, but as "a contribution to the debate" about the Government’s trustworthiness over Iraq.
It was "chatter in the air", a bit of mischief-making, and, if you read back through the transcripts, it was communicated to Gilligan as such by the Today program’s sneerer-in-chief, John Humphrys. His question to his defence correspondent was designed to initiate just this kind of light, speculative tone — a tone perhaps where possiblys could easily become probablys and slightly doubtfuls become plain wrongs. "So, Andy, what’s the story?"
The story, as it has unfolded for Gilligan, has turned out, over the past few weeks, to be one of lost notes and mangled quotes, of shifting memory and forced apology. It has been a tale in which he has seen himself alienated from the public (with the help of a series of unflattering below-chin photos, in, mostly, the Murdoch press) and from his fellow hacks (by breaking the journalists’ omerta and naming Kelly not only as his own source but also as the source of his colleague, Susan Watts, in a misguided email to the Foreign Affairs Committee).
It is also a story, which in its broadest details — the fallibility of the 45-minute claim, its inappropriate application to WMD, and the last-minute scramble to strengthen the dossier — has proved, after two months of disclosure and debate, like all of the best stories, to be true.
Alastair Campbell understands only too well, that whoever supplies information, wields influence. This is why, when Kelly first came forward to suggest he might just have been the source of Gilligan’s speculations, the response of the Government — that is, the response of Campbell — was not to ascertain whether the claims Kelly made might be based on fact, but whether he was in a position to know for certain that some of the allegations were true. Having established that he was not, the Government immediately recognised that it could increase the pressure on the BBC — the "game of chicken" — to retract its story.
With due deference to Kelly and his family, Campbell would have us believe that the other victim in this case was himself (and, by extension, his Prime Minister). It was, he said, repeatedly, "very dispiriting", to realise that the BBC would do nothing to correct the assault on trust that Gilligan had perpetrated.
Having dictated the original terms of this argument (with no mention, for example, of the dossier he did present to the public in good faith that turned out to have been culled from the internet), Campbell had a source that could trump anything trawled from the in-boxes of the secret services.
Even the Kelly family submitted that Campbell’s diaries were "compelling". The effect of his diaries was threefold. For a start, however reluctantly, it offered up Defence Minister Geoff Hoon as a scapegoat. In his evidence, Hoon had repeatedly refused to take the blame for the absurd "naming strategy", which outed Kelly as Gilligan’s source. Campbell allowed his diary, with great reluctance, as he said, to make Hoon’s confession for him.
The diaries also had the effect of letting Prime Minister Blair almost entirely off the hook for the conspiracies and cock-ups that led to Kelly’s death (when Blair did finally appear at the inquiry, he seemed preoccupied mostly with the question of whether he should put on or take off his spectacles to consider the evidence); in Campbell’s hasty narrative, his boss is only ever the voice of reason, appealing always for calm, while hot-headed advisers such as himself, and, of course ministers such as Hoon urged revenge.
At the end of the first stage of Dingemans’s questioning, he offered the routine opportunity for each witness to add anything they wished that might have been relevant to an understanding of Kelly’s death.
Sitting on Harrowdown Hill, a silver glimpse of the Thames in the near distance, I set out my own little version of an answer to Dingemans’s question. At some point in the drift of events that led to Kelly’s death, the story seemed to take on a momentum of its own. And so, on a notepad, I jotted down the things that, had they happened differently, might have changed the scientist’s fate.
High on the list was Gilligan’s "erm"; it took in Campbell’s history with the journalist, and the BBC’s desperation to be seen to maintain its independence at all costs (regardless of the facts); it included Hoon’s naming policy, and MoD man Sir Richard Hatfield’s callous understanding of Kelly’s employment rights (with personnel directors such as this, Kelly might have asked, who needs rogue dictators?), and it went on with the MP Andrew Mackinlay’s childishly aggressive questioning ("you are chaff") in the Foreign Affairs Committee. By the time I got to "Prime Minister determined to follow America into war come what may", I had filled two pages, so I stopped and began to walk back toward the village.
Some combination of that long list of what-ifs had conspired to close a part of Kelly’s life to him for ever, and it seems that on some level, towards lunchtime on July 17, he felt that he could not cope with that fact. Iraq, the inquiry made clear, had become an addiction for him.
He had been there 40 times or more, and brought little bits of it back home: practising the Baha’i faith that had its origins in Baghdad at his local Spiritual Assembly of the Vale of White Horse in Abingdon; retaining friendships and powerful loyalties to the people he had worked with. One of the great ironies in this addiction, as Dingemans pointed out, is the fact that Kelly was one of the few men on the planet ever likely to be able to locate the fabled WMD.
As his sister pointed out, "he desperately wanted to go back to Iraq and to finish the job … he thought they were masters at hiding things but he had a pretty good idea where he would go if he had a free rein to do so."
The reason for his talking to Gilligan in the first place was to get a briefing about the situation in Iraq to help get on with "finishing the job". Once it became clear that, through his own fatal unguardedness and his employers’ systematic betrayal, that opportunity was to be denied him, you wonder if, perhaps, in his disturbed state he came up with an alternative plan to get to the truth.
As his wife said, Kelly was always "very factual. That is what he tried always to be, to be factual". What event has produced more facts than the inquiry which followed her husband’s death?
Kelly would, no doubt, have appreciated the rigour and openness of Hutton’s investigation. It has achieved for him, tragically, in death what he seemed always to aspire to in life: he has made a difference.
©Copyright 2003, The Age (Australia)
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