Scientist's death puts institutions on trial


LONDON - For much of the past week, a procession of witnesses has filed into Room 73 at London's Royal Court of Justice to testify, ostensibly, about one issue: What brought about the death of Dr. David Kelly, one of Britain's foremost experts on Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs?

Repeatedly, people involved in these hearings - led by a senior judge, Lord Hutton - have been told that this is not a trial. Yet, never far below the surface, there is an overwhelming sense that the inquiry will deliver a verdict that will mold history's view of whether Prime Minister Tony Blair misled the nation in going to war against Iraq - or even dictate his political longevity.

Figuratively at least, one of Britain's biggest institutions, the British Broadcasting Corp., is in the dock with him. It was a BBC report on May 29 - for which the government and the BBC ultimately named Kelly as the source - that precipitated this crisis of credibility. The report suggested that the government exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to persuade the nation to support an invasion.

The report rebounded on the credibility of government and broadcaster as events unfolded toward the discovery July 18 of Kelly's body, his left wrist slashed, apparently a suicide.

Despite four long days of evidence from colleagues, friends, reports and officials, it is unclear what might have led to the death of Kelly, 59. It is equally uncertain whether the government, as its critics assert, set out to present a distorted view of the threat from Iraq - specifically, as reported by the BBC, by turning a flimsy intelligence report into a cast-iron assertion that Iraq had the capability to launch biological or chemical weapons within 45 minutes.

From the murk of conflicting evidence, however, discernible themes seem to be emerging.

First, testimony from three BBC reporters who spoke to Kelly indicated that he had misgivings about the claims regarding the 45-minute threat and that he seemed to have believed that Blair's press office had a hand in crafting an official dossier in September that overstated the case for war.

Second, discrepancies between what two of the reporters believed Kelly was telling them have raised questions about whether the BBC itself misled its listeners - and thus tarnished its own credibility - through what a BBC editor called "loose use of language and lack of judgment" by Andrew Gilligan, the correspondent for the May 29 report.

Third, the testimony seems to depict Kelly as victim rather than villain - a scientist caught up in bureaucratic machinations and witch hunts.

It was a series of bruising encounters with some of those officials that culminated in a direct order from Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, reportedly supported by Blair, for Kelly to appear before a televised parliamentary inquiry July 15 after being publicly identified as the BBC's informant. Kelly appeared and acknowledged "interacting" with Gilligan, but he denied being the "main source" for the May 29 BBC report.

A day later Kelly testified before a closed-door inquiry and, said Bryan Wells, a Defense Ministry official, felt "very pleased at how it had gone."

But other senior intelligence officials were still seeking a "security-style" grilling of Kelly.

"Kelly is feeling the pressure and does not appear to be handling it well," said a Defense Ministry's memorandum composed before Kelly's death and presented to the Hutton inquiry.

Even on July 17, as Kelly left his home for a walk from which he did not return, government officials were still calling his cell phone to inquire about his contacts with reporters.

In some ways, the inquiry so far has given grist to all sides, and all sides have had their say over this divisive debate inspired by the war in Iraq.

Columnist Peter Riddell wrote in The Times of London, "The death of Dr. Kelly is essentially still a story about him, rather than why we went to war five months ago."

Writing in The Guardian, however, Roy Hattersley, a former Labor minister, argued that on the very first day of the inquiry, intelligence officers had cast doubt on the government's claim that "we and our allies faced a real and present danger.

"If we had known in March what we know today, neither the House of Commons nor the British people would have supported the decision to go to war. The government exaggerated the threat from Iraq."

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