Britain

TRUTH, LIES AND WHAT BLAIR KNEW

The death of a man who maybe knew too much has rattled the British government

JAMES BLITZ August 4 2003
Britain

TRUTH, LIES AND WHAT BLAIR KNEW

The death of a man who maybe knew too much has rattled the British government

JAMES BLITZ August 4 2003

TRUTH, LIES AND WHAT BLAIR KNEW

The death of a man who maybe knew too much has rattled the British government

JAMES BLITZ

Britain

TONY BLAIR strode onto Capitol Hill on the afternoon of July 17, stood before the joint houses of the U.S. Congress and was applauded more enthusiastically than any British prime minister before him. At that very moment, almost 7,000 km away in a field in the English county of Oxfordshire, a 59-year-old government scientist lay dead and undiscovered, having apparently slashed one of his wrists earlier in the day. This is the summary of British politics as it now stands, the central paradox which the 50year-old Blair is now living.

On the one hand, the prime minister, now six years into office, is hailed in Washington as a hero, the leader who backed the U.S. in its battle to topple Saddam Hussein, despite serious opposition to the war in his party and country. On the other, the apparent suicide of David Kelly, an intense, quiet and very precise adviser to Britain’s ministry of defence on chemical and biological warfare, is turning into the biggest crisis yet faced by Blair’s government. It has crystallized as never before the accusation that Blair’s government is bent on media spin. The specific allegation: that it deceived the public over the reasons for going to war in Iraq, even if that meant pushing Kelly to suicide.

The events leading up to Kelly’s death are a complex drama. Blair and senior figures in his cabinet will be asked to give evidence to an independent public inquiry headed by a senior judge into how Kelly came to die. The hunch of most fair-minded political commentators is that this is not Blair’s Water-

gate. But nobody is completely sure.

The plot of the Kelly affair goes like this. On May 29, BBC radio’s morning program Today—the most important political show on British airwaves-broadcast an item by its defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan. He reported that he had spoken to an unnamed official about the government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction published the previous September—a document central to Blair’s case for removing Saddam. Gilligan said his source told him the dossier had been altered at the behest of Downing Street shortly before publication to make the Iraqi situation appear more dangerous. The “classic example,” he said, was the claim that Iraqi troops could launch chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of receiving an order. In an article a few days later in the mass-market tabloid Mail on Sunday, Gilligan embellished the story, stating that his source said the 45minute claim was added by Blair’s powerful media chief, Alastair Campbell.

A furor erupted. Campbell launched a ferocious attack on Gilligan’s claim, calling it a lie. The BBC countered, saying the unnamed source was accurately quoted. Both sides knew there was much at stake. If Gilligan’s report could be proven true, then the case could be made that the government went to war on a false prospectus, undermining public trust in Blair’s government. If not true, then attacks on the government’s credibility would be blunted and the BBC’s hard-won credibility damaged.

Throughout June, the drama between Downing Street and the BBC played out before Parliament’s foreign committee, which convened to examine whether the report

of the security dossier was true. Campbell, and the heads of several key government departments, told the MPs that the 45-minute point had not been added at Campbell’s behest. Gilligan stuck to his story, spelling out in further detail to the committee what his source had told him, without naming the individual.

On July 7, the foreign affairs committee failed to come to a clear and unanimous verdict that would vindicate either side. Yet the following day, just as the row appeared to be playing out, a new twist occurred: the ministry of defence reported that an unnamed official had come forward saying he may have been the source for the report. Two days later he was identified in three British national newspapers as David Kelly.

A new battle between Downing Street and the BBC then erupted over someone that nobody outside the specialized world of chemical weaponry had ever heard of. Blair’s aides called on the BBC to confirm Kelly was the source, arguing that—if this was the case— he was not senior enough in the government hierarchy to know whether Campbell added the 45-minute claim. The BBC still refused to reveal its source, and on July 15, Kelly appeared publicly before the foreign affairs committee in a gruelling and inconclusive hearing at which he was clearly depressed and uncomfortable. In essence, he said, yes, he spoke with Gilligan, but he didn’t see the reporter’s story as one based on his comments. Three days later, he was

found dead in Oxfordshire.

The discovery of his body triggered something close to panic in the government. Blair had left Washington after his rapturously received speech to Congress and was flying to Tokyo when he was told the news. He immediately ordered the judicial inquiry. Then two days later, the BBC delivered another bombshell. Aware that public interest in this case was now overwhelming, it

DID ANYONE threaten to punish Kelly in any way? And most critically, why and how did his name come into the public arena?

announced that Kelly was the “principal source” for Gilligan’s story. And that’s the point where things stand, with both sides waiting for a judge to decide who sent this man on the road to apparent suicide.

As the inquiry begins its work, Blair’s government faces one central accusation: that in its zeal to have the BBC apologize for the Gilligan broadcast, officials brought an unacceptable amount of pressure to bear on Kelly. Did they threaten to punish him in any way? And most critically, why and how did

his name come into the public arena5 Government officials did not directly leak the name, we know that. But was there some kind of subtle strategy to release sufficient background information about Kelly to the media to allow three newspapers to come up with his name without difficulty?

For the BBC, the charge sheet is also serious. Did Kelly really tell Gilligan that the 45minute item had been added at the behest of Downing Street and against the advice of the intelligence services? And even if Kelly did say that, was he really a good enough source for such a story? In the weeks after the Gilligan broadcast, the BBC described the—as yet unnamed—Kelly as a “senior intelligence source.” But Kelly was not in the intelligence services and may have been little more than a technical expert.

Now, the issue is where this leaves Blair. Nobody can be completely sure. This is one of those tortuous sagas where one stray e-mail, one tape-recorded conversation might link the prime minister with a strategy to put Kelly’s name in the public domain. Blair has flatly denied this, but even if he does escape unblemished, a suicide and a blazing row with the BBC are embarrassing. It is also a crisis that comes at a bad time. Blair has reached that point of his premiership where the going gets tough for prime ministers. The Iraq war has been traumatic for his Labour party and the country, both of which were very reluctant to go to war. The difficulty finding weapons of mass destruction and the guerrilla resistance in Iraq have dented public confidence in Blair. And on the domestic front, left-wing MPs in the Labour party are becoming restless with Blair’s radical policies to semiprivatize hospitals and charge university tuition fees.

The betting is that Blair will survive. It may be that Campbell—the bête noire of Britain’s right-wing press—will have to quit Downing Street. Some others directly involved with handling Kelly in recent weeks may have to go, too. But Blair remains one of the most successful Labour Party leaders ever. And while the government’s popularity has slumped, it remains—astonishingly in the circumstances-two points ahead of the Tories. Blair will still be prime minister this Christmas—unless he can be closely linked to Kelly’s sad and lonely death. fi1]

James Blitz is political editor of the Financial Times