The scientist and the 'sexed-up' dossier

It is clear from the first week of the Hutton inquiry into the apparent suicide of British scientist Dr David Kelly that nobody…

It is clear from the first week of the Hutton inquiry into the apparent suicide of British scientist Dr David Kelly that nobody is going to emerge unscathed, writes Roy Greenslade.

By any standard of British political precedence the judicial inquiry into the circumstances that led to the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly, the British government's leading weapons expert, is remarkable. There are so many fascinating facets to this hastily convened investigation chaired by Lord Hutton.

It may be narrow in its remit, but for all those involved - and, to be honest, the entire British population - the stakes could not be higher.

There is, for a start, the credibility of the government, its leader, his most senior aide, the BBC, its news supremos, its most illustrious current-affairs show and one of its chief reporters. Next come the political career of the defence minister, the reliability of the intelligence services and the conduct of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).


Finally, of course, there is the reputation of the one man who can no longer speak in his own defence: Dr Kelly. In that sense the inquiry should be seen as an ersatz inquest, with Hutton acting as coroner.

Underlying these personal, human dramas are questions that Hutton has not been asked to consider but that lie at the heart of the matter: did Tony Blair, the prime minister, convince the British people and its parliament to invade Iraq on a false premise? Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? If he did, was he capable of deploying them quickly and was he planning to do so?

Before we consider what has happened this week in courtroom 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, let's briefly recall why some of Britain's most eminent lawyers have been hired to scrutinise some of the nation's most important politicians, bureaucrats and journalists.

The saga began on May 29th with a broadcast by Andrew Gilligan, defence correspondent with Today, the agenda-setting Radio 4 morning magazine programme regarded by the political and media classes as essential listening.

The Iraqi invasion was over by then, but the row about the (supposedly false) reasons for going to war was being keenly fought. To turn the public tide in the run-up to the conflict, Blair had made public two intelligence dossiers, one of which contained the controversial claim that Saddam was able to deploy his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) within 45 minutes.

When no WMDs were found during or after the invasion Blair faced mounting criticism, and Gilligan, like other journalists, set out to discover the provenance of the dossiers.

In his first report, on May 29th, Gilligan claimed that he had been told "by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the document" that the government "probably knew that the 45-minute figure was wrong" but decided to put it in all the same.

He further alleged that his source had said that Downing Street ordered the dossier to be "sexed up", a process that "made the intelligence services unhappy" because it didn't reflect the services' considered view.

In a subsequent broadcast Gilligan referred to the source as "a British official" who had told him the 45-minute claim wasn't in the original draft of the dossier, that it was included "against our wishes . . . at the behest of Downing Street".

Three days later an article by Gilligan appeared in the Mail On Sunday that made a new and much more contentious allegation. He wrote that his source had named Blair's communications director, Alastair Campbell, as the man responsible for the sexing-up of the dossier, including the inclusion of the 45-minute claim.

Campbell, whose office had already complained to the BBC about the broadcast, wrote strong letters to the BBC's head of news, Richard Sambrook, demanding an apology. When he failed to get satisfaction he used his appearance at a House of Commons select committee to make public his complaint.

That started a train of events that led to Dr Kelly admitting to his MoD bosses that he was the source, to his public identification, to public questioning by MPs, to private interrogation by the MoD and, on July 18th, to his body being found near his Oxfordshire home, his wrists having been cut.

So what did we learn about the complex events surrounding the tragedy last week? Day one was generally adjudged to be bad for the government and very bad for the "Whitehall machine", that elusive bureaucracy that serves the Westminster parliament.

We learned that Dr Kelly - who everyone appears to agree was one of the world's most respected experts on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programme - was poorly treated by his MoD employers.

Here was a scientist, praised across the globe for his breadth of knowledge and wise advice, and honoured for his work with one of those typically British patronage-system gongs, a Companionship in the Order of St Michael and St George, known as a CMG. Yet he was unhappy because the MoD research establishment didn't pay him as much as he thought he was worth and he keenly felt a diminution in his status.

As for the MoD, it didn't think too highly of Dr Kelly briefing journalists. By touching on "politically controversial issues" Kelly "had clearly strayed beyond technical information", said the MoD's head of personnel, Richard Hatfield.

Kelly's briefings, even if authorised, did reflect the doubts of some intelligence officials about the 45-minute claim. The inquiry was told that two officials from the defence-intelligence staff wrote letters of protest about the way certain details in the dossier were presented.

Day two was something of a split decision: bad for Gilligan or bad for Campbell? It was all a matter of which side you preferred to believe.

The BBC certainly came out of it with egg on its face. The inquiry was presented with an internal memo written by Gilligan's boss, Kevin Marsh, the editor of the Today programme, to the head of radio news in which he criticised Gilligan's "flawed reporting".

"Our biggest millstone," he wrote, "has been his [Gilligan's\] loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology". Marsh was also concerned about the "loose" writing in Gilligan's Mail On Sunday article (which Marsh has previously admitted having vetted before publication).

Another bombshell for the BBC came on day three in the evidence of Susan Watts, who is science editor of BBC TV's Newsnight current affairs show, who had given a hint of her differences with the corporation by hiring her own defence counsel. She told the inquiry of the BBC's "misguided and false" attempts to use her own stories based on briefings from Kelly to corroborate Gilligan's claims. She had, she said, been put under "considerable internal pressure" to reveal her source.

Though she finally did so, she argued that there were significant differences between her broadcast and Gilligan's story: she had dismissed Kelly's mention of Campbell's name as a "gossipy aside", for example.

But Watts was therefore confirming that Kelly had identified Campbell in his briefing, which gave credence to Gilligan's similar assertion.

Campbell's name was in the frame: Kelly had mentioned him to both reporters.

But why hadn't Gilligan named Campbell in his radio broadcasts? He told the inquiry: "I had a difficult relationship with Mr Campbell . . . I didn't want to name him in that context."

No such reticence had stopped him from doing so in the Mail On Sunday, however, and this contradiction is likely to be picked at by other witnesses in coming weeks.

Gilligan's evidence was pored over by every newspaper, with each one highlighting the bits that suited its agenda. It proved him a liar, according to the pro-Blair Sun. It proved Campbell has subverted our media, said the anti-Blair Daily Mail.

The government's cause took a further blow when a third BBC reporter, television news correspondent Gavin Hewitt, confirmed that he had been briefed by Kelly and, yes, the scientist had also told him that Downing Street had embellished the dossier.

It wasn't until the inquiry's fourth day that the trail of evidence led to Number 10, when Blair was implicated along with his defence minister, Geoff Hoon. They had intervened when they realised the Kelly affair was causing a panic within Whitehall.

According to a memo from Sir David Ormand, the cabinet's intelligence and security co-ordinator, Blair was keen to establish the differences between Kelly's account of his meeting with Gilligan and Gilligan's report. That led to Kelly being interviewed by MoD officials and to Hoon deciding, despite opposition from his senior civil servant, that Kelly should face public cross-examination by the Commons foreign affairs select committee.

Yesterday it appeared that even the man who drew up the dossier, John Scarlett, was concerned about its credibility. It was another unexpected twist and, with much evidence to come - most importantly, from Blair, Campbell and Hoon - it is unclear what will happen at the end of this tangled tale.

But one thing is certain: nobody is going to emerge untainted. Except the 20 lawyers, of course. As always, our learned friends are smiling all the way to the bank.