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Betrayal: The torment of a man of morals

Dr David Kelly was a man who always wanted to do the right thing. So he spoke to journalists and was not afraid to admit it. But politicians and BBC powerbrokers failed him when it mattered. Nicholas Rufford reports on the tragedy of a personal friend

Dr David Kelly was a man who always wanted to do the right thing. So he spoke to journalists and was not afraid to admit it. But politicians and BBC powerbrokers failed him when it mattered. Nicholas Rufford reports on the tragedy of a personal friend

The David Kelly waiting for me in the driveway of his Oxfordshire home 10 days ago was not his normal self. Gone were the usual smile and firm handshake. Worried and drawn, he stood there awkwardly. “I have been told by the MoD (Ministry of Defence) not to say anything,” he said. I asked him why.
“I think you already know.” He looked sheepish. A few days earlier I had suggested to him that he was the “mole” who had sparked a report on the BBC that the government had “sexed up” intelligence on Iraq’s WMD to help to sell the war to a reluctant public. He had denied it, but now his face was an open confession. He looked pale and his clothes hung baggily off his normally sprightly frame.
“It has been a very difficult time, as you can imagine,” he murmured. Difficult indeed. Honest and decent, Kelly was no peacenik or whistleblower. He knew that Saddam had for many years pursued terrible weapons and he had had a key role in compiling one of the government’s dossiers about them. However, ever the meticulous scientist, he felt it had exaggerated some aspects in its presentation. When invited by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan to comment on the dossier, he had done so in confidence and soberly; he was not a man to use words like “sexed up”.
When Gilligan’s subsequent report had provoked open warfare between the BBC and Downing Street — a clash of behemoths that went to the heart of a greater issue: Had the prime minister taken this country to war on false pretences? — Kelly had privately confessed his role to the Ministry of Defence. As we stood there in his driveway in the evening sunshine, I asked Kelly how the MoD had treated him. “For the record? They have been quite good about it.” Then he added: “But I feel as though I have been through the wringer.”
His ordeal was about to become far worse. He had just received a call from the MoD press office telling him that his name was about to be made public. He was going to be the fall guy in the most furious political row to erupt since the Blair government came to power. He had been betrayed by those he thought he could trust. “How did they know?” I asked.
“They wouldn’t say. They just said it was going to be in tomorrow’s papers.”
“Who do you suspect leaked your name?” “I don’t know. I was told the whole thing would be confidential.” Next day he was thrust unprepared into the full glare of media attention and public cross-examination by his masters in Whitehall — and left twisting in the wind by the mandarins of the BBC.
To them, perhaps, Kelly was merely a pawn in the cut and thrust of politics. Tony Blair had his eyes on the grand sweep of history, not the petty details of a dossier. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications director, in his brutally pedantic way was set on vindication. The BBC was too self-obsessed to send a lifeline to an outsider. Within days they would all have blood on their hands as far as the public was concerned — their bullying and arrogance having led to the tragic suicide of an honourable man.
Kelly was a weapons inspector, a job he relished. He saw it as a welcome escape from academia, preferring desert action to dusty books in libraries. He had been a microbiologist at Oxford University before he moved to Porton Down, Britain’s main bioweapons establishment. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991 he was quickly seconded to the UN team of inspectors tasked with stripping Saddam of his weapons. He took to it with gusto. He made 37 trips to Iraq over seven years until the inspectors were recalled from Iraq after Saddam withdrew his co-operation. He had access to the world of top secret intelligence. He knew and had spoken to all of Saddam’s senior scientific advisers. They were clever men and women but Kelly had their measure and almost always knew when they were lying or covering up the truth. When General Amer Al-Saadi, Saddam’s chief scientific adviser, dramatically surrendered to the American forces at the end of the war, Kelly was called on to identify him and help to prepare his interrogation. “He was the man who advised Saddam on what he could get away with,” he said. “He knew where all the bodies were buried.”
Gradually, so did Kelly. His reports for the UN detailed types and strains of micro-organisms, numbers of shells and aerial bombs filled with botulinum toxin, manufacturers of equipment used for the production of bio-weapons material, gallons of growth medium acquired by Iraqi scientists and which countries had sold the material. Although he had office 2/35 in the Proliferation and Arms Control Secretariat in London, he kept most of his papers and archive material in his study at home. He would gently lift one of his cats off a pile of paper and dig around for a few seconds before producing with a flourish an obscure document that would give him the precise answer he wanted.
Most of the important material was on his desktop computer, including hundreds of photographs he had taken of weapons factories, Iraqi officials and milk-churn filling machines that had been adapted by the Iraqis to load shell casings with bioweapons. Even in the summer when his garden was in bloom, he never forgot that in the deserts around Baghdad Saddam’s scientists were using their knowledge to create terrifying weapons.
“I sometimes feel locked in a battle of minds,” he once said. “They are clever and I have to be cleverer.” Perhaps as a reaction he had come to believe in a better world and had adopted the Baha’i faith, which seeks international understanding and reconciliation.
This was the complex man who was assigned early last year to help to prepare a government dossier on Iraq. Downing Street asked the joint intelligence committee (JIC) for a properly researched, comprehensive analysis of Iraq’s weapons capabilities. Kelly was asked to prepare a report on what weapons and what weapons-making equipment or materials Iraq could still be hiding.
“My involvement was writing a historical account of the Unscom inspections and providing input into Iraq’s concealment and deception,” Kelly told the Commons foreign affairs select committee last week, two days before he killed himself. He said that he submitted his work long before the final version of the dossier was published in September and was “not involved at all” in any revisions. In fact he was on leave or working abroad when the final drafting was taking place.
That document was unique. As Blair boasted, no government had ever before published such a detailed intelligence assessment. It pushed Kelly’s work into a new dimension, however. His careful, scientific contribution was in a dossier designed for propaganda. And when the propaganda was eventually exposed, Kelly would be the casualty.
In love with Iraq
I first met David Kelly six years ago in between his frequent trips to Iraq as a UN weapons inspector. He could look stern when he shook your hand and looked at you like a research scientist studying a furry laboratory animal. But there was a warmth in his smile and his personality that was immediately engaging. He said to me: “So, what do you want to know about? Botulinum toxin? Anthrax? VX? Sarin?” There was a twinkle in his eye and gentle mirth in his voice, and I was captivated straight away by his enthusiasm.
He was an academic who boasted he had escaped the dreary confines of academia by the skin of his teeth. From a research post at Oxford University he joined Porton Down, Britain’s bio-weapons defence establishment, where he became head of microbiology. The Gulf war in 1991 was to change everything. “When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, little did I realise that Saddam Hussein would dictate the next 10 years of my life,” he said. From 1991 until 1998 he made 37 trips to Iraq, many as Britain’s chief weapons inspector with the UN.
He was as delightful in conversation as he was determined in his work. His favourite stories were told to me in the bar of the Waggon & Horses pub opposite his home in Southmoor near Oxford. He had a good line in anecdotes about Saddam’s top scientists, many of whom studied in Britain.
“They are disarmingly polite,” he used to tell me. “They love England and talk about their alma maters in a way that makes you forget they were designing weapons to wipe out thousands of people.” Kelly would interview them over and over again, carefully transcribing their answers and going back forensically over the same ground to check for consistency. His favourite foe was Dr Rihab Taha, the head of Saddam’s bio-weapons programme. It was Kelly who dubbed her “Dr Germ”.
Her response to Kelly’s questions was to launch into an angry shouting match or to burst into tears. Other inspectors were disarmed by this reaction and found her impossible to deal with. Kelly, with the patience of a scientist involved in a long experiment, would wait for the tantrum to subside.
He admitted to me he had fallen in love with Iraq. For all the heat, grime and discomfort of his trips, there was something about the landscape and culture that drew him back. His biggest fear when the row broke over the BBC report was that he would not be allowed to resume his work in Iraq.
“I just hope they don’t ground me indefinitely,” he said. Kelly spoke to lots of reporters. Judith Miller of The New York Times relied on him hugely for the book Germ she co-authored about bio-weapons. Tom Mangold, the former BBC correspondent, found him a mine of information on Saddam’s arsenal.
For a civil servant he was remarkably open, though he always resisted publicity. To interview him on the record, he would request that you ask the Foreign Office press office, which invariably declined.
But once in a while he didn’t mind being quoted if you told him you needed a named source for the story. “Just don’t get me into trouble,” he would say. He told me just before he died that he had been speaking to the press for 10 years and had never had a bad experience. “If someone abuses your trust you just don’t deal with them again,” he said. His bosses at the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office were used to his unorthodox ways, he assured me.
He believed he was performing a service by conveying complex scientific subjects in simple, comprehensible language. He used to paraphrase Einstein (at least that’s what he told me) who said: “Any scientist who can’t explain the most complicated theory to an eight-year-old child is a charlatan.”
But his openness was also his vulnerability. It would have been easy to twist his words. He was not a government employee, a “Whitehall official” or a member of the intelligence services, though he did work closely with them. He was a scientist, whose loyalty was to what he believed was right or wrong, true or false.
He teased me, saying I had wasted my doctorate in engineering by becoming a journalist. “You could switch careers and be a UN inspector,” he told me. “It is not too late. Make up for all those years you squandered.”
He chided me once or twice for writing in journalese when he said I should be using simple, elegant language. “Don’t go over to the dark side,” he warned.

©Copyright 2003, The Peninsula (Qatar)

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