A call to arms, a troubled scientist and the unravelling of a mysterious death

By Paul Vallely

11 August 2003

The Independent

Almost a year has passed since Tony Blair's Government issued its first fateful dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This was not what became known as the "dodgy dossier". That came later. But, as it happened, the controversy surrounding the first dossier on the threat from Saddam Hussein was far more grave.

Dr David Kelly, a former Porton Down scientist and UN weapons inspector in Iraq, was among those involved in compiling it. He had worked for the Ministry of Defence as an expert on biological warfare for the past four years. The dossier was published on 24 September 2002. It contained the portentous warning that Saddam Hussein had chemical or biological weapons ready to use within 45 minutes of the order being given.

We now know, that David Kelly was expressing reservations about this core claim. We know this - even before the Hutton Inquiry takes its first evidence today - because since Dr Kelly's body was found near his Oxfordshire home on 18 July a stream of intriguing new details have emerged.

In October 2002, Dr Kelly gave a slide show and lecture about his experiences as a weapons inspector in Iraq to a small almost private gathering of the Baha'i faith, which aims to unite the teachings of all the prophets. Dr Kelly had converted to the religion three years earlier, while in New York on attachment to the UN. When he returned to England he became treasurer of the small but influential Baha'i branch in Abingdon near his home.

Roger Kingdon, a member, recalls: "He had no doubt that [the Iraqis] had biological and chemical weapons. It was clear that David Kelly was largely happy with the material in the dossier, but he was not so happy with how the material had been interpreted."

Several months later - the date is unclear - Dr Kelly bumped into Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State and confronted him, a meeting which the politician later claimed to forget. Exactly what was said will probably never be known. But conversations between Dr Kelly and his friend, Tom Mangold, the television journalist, suggest that while he was broadly supportive of the document's content he was sceptical of the "45-minutes" claim.

"We laughed about that," Mr Mangold said later. "He reminded me it would take the most efficient handlers at least 45 minutes just to pour the chemicals or load the biological agents into the warheads." A precise man, Dr Kelly was irritated by inaccuracy; he believed the dossier exaggerated intelligence for effect.

He said as much on 7 May when he spoke by telephone to Susan Watts, the science editor of BBC2's Newsnight - a conversation which, though he did not know it, she wasrecording. And Dr Kelly voiced the same reservations, it is claimed, when the pivotal meeting in the whole sorry affair occurred - with Andrew Gilligan, the defence correspondent of the Today programme, two weeks later on 22 May.

Seven days after that, on 29 May, Mr Gilligan told the Radio 4 audience, "one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the September dossier said the Government probably knew the 45-minute figure was wrong even before it decided to put it in". He quoted him as saying: "Downing Street, a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed-up, to be made more exciting and ordered more facts to be discovered". The intelligence services were unhappy because the end product did not reflect their considered view.

Later that day another reporter became involved. Gavin Hewitt, working for BBC1's News at Ten O'Clock, rang Dr Kelly in an attempt to substantiate Mr Gilligan's story. He did not realise he was speaking to Mr Gilligan's source.

Mr Hewitt that night broadcast: "In the final week before publication some material was taken out and some put in. Some spin from No 10 did come into play." But he also added: "Even so the intelligence community remains convinced weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq."

Two days later Susan Watts phoned Dr Kelly again and discussed the "45-minutes" claim. That Sunday, 1 June, Mr Gilligan wrote a piece in The Mail on Sunday in which he went further than on radio. He said the man responsible for the exaggeration was Alastair Campbell, the Government's director of communications and strategy.

The next night Susan Watts was on Newsnight again. She told viewers she had spoken to a senior official intimately involved with the process of pulling together the dossier. She said: "Our source made clear that in the run-up to publishing the dossier the Government was obsessed with finding intelligence on immediate Iraq threats, and the Government's insistence that the Iraqi threat was 'imminent' was a Downing Street interpretation of intelligence conclusions."

She quoted the source as saying: "While we were agreed on the potential Iraqi threat in the future there was less agreement about the threat the Iraqis posed at the moment. That was the real concern, not so much what they had now but what they would have in the future, but that unfortunately was not expressed strongly in the dossier because that takes the case away for war to a certain extent."

Of the "45-minute" claim, the source added: "It was a statement that was made and it just got out of all proportion. They were desperate for information, they were pushing hard for information that could be released. That was one that popped up and it was seized on, and it is unfortunate that it was. That is why there is the argument between the Intelligence Services and No 10, because they picked up on it, and once they had picked up on it you cannot pull it back from them."

Looking back there is an interesting additional element. Though the Government issued a rebuttal to Mr Gilligan's original report, that was all. About a week later Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell had dinner with BBC executives, including the editor of Today. They discussed various things, but not the Gilligan affair. The Government, it appeared, became angry in retrospect - on the day of Alastair Campbell's appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

A fortnight later, on 19 June, Andrew Gilligan gave evidence to the foreign affairs committee. He maintained his line and refused to name his source. The next week, on 25 June, Mr Campbell appeared before the same MPs. He admitted he had been intimately involved in the dossier's presentation, suggesting amendments to the Joint Intelligence Committee - he had even chaired some meetings. But he denied adding material to the dossier. He upped the stakes by demanding an apology from the BBC.

It was now that Dr Kelly began to feel uncomfortable. Back in the office the following Monday, 30 June, Dr Kelly's colleagues were talking about the foreign affairs committee hearings. The turning point came when a colleague pointed to Mr Gilligan's claim that his source had said it was "30 per cent likely" that Iraq had a chemical weapons programme in the six months before the war, and that though it was "more likely" there were biological weapons, it would have been reduced "because you could not conceal a larger programme. The sanctions were actually quite effective; they did limit the programme." These were, the colleague noted, the precise phrases used by Dr Kelly in discussions with colleagues.

David Kelly realised the game was up. He confessed to his bosses that he might be the source for some of the information - but not all of it. And not the damaging detail on the "45-minute" claim. It was a high risk strategy, but being accused by someone else would have been worse. He might have been charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. His career was at risk. And so, possibly, a year from retirement, was his pension. They might prevent him from going to Iraq that weekend to join the Iraq Survey Group which was hunting for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Dr Kelly wrote that day, 30 June, to his immediate boss, and said he thought he might have been the source of some, but crucially not all, of the Gilligan story. His letter said he had met the BBC reporter whose description of his meeting with his source "in small part matches my interaction with him, especially my personal evaluation of Iraq's capability". But that was all.

He wrote: "I can only conclude one of three things. Gilligan has considerably embellished my meeting with him; he has met with other individuals who truly were intimately associated with the dossier; or he has assembled comments from both multiple direct and indirect sources for his articles."

Almost as soon as the letter was received government ministers were briefed. Detailed discussions took place. On 4 July Dr Kelly was interviewed by his line manager and by Richard Hatfield, the personnel director of the MoD. According to the MoD, Dr Kelly was told to go away for the weekend and "think over his options". He returned to work on 7 July, to more questioning. That day, the foreign affairs committee pronounced that Alastair Campbell was not guilty of "sexing-up" the dossier.

Dr Kelly was told he would have to appear before the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee to discuss his meeting with Mr Gilligan. The meeting would be in camera and Dr Kelly was promised anonymity. But the MoD broke that understanding. Exactly who did is unclear. Lord Hutton will be quizzing, on that subject, Alastair Campbell, Geoff Hoon, Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's most senior civil servant, Richard Hatfield, its personnel chief, and Pam Teare, its head of news. But whoever made the decision, what is clear is that the MoD fixed on a highly unusual strategy of agreeing to "confirm or deny" any guesses put to it by journalists.

On 8 July, Geoff Hoon wrote to Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC, enclosing a statement which the MoD were going to issue that day saying that Mr Gilligan's mole had come forward. He was not to be named, but he was not a senior intelligence source nor was he involved in the preparation of the dossier, as the BBC had claimed. Mr Hoon offered to tell Mr Davies the name "in confidence, on the basis that you would then immediately confirm or deny that this is indeed Mr Gilligan's source". The BBC refused. The MoD issued the statement citing an anonymous official who believed he was Mr Gilligan's source for some of his report. The inference was that the rest was made up.

The emotional temperature rose higher. Tony Blair justified Downing Street's ferocious pursuit of the BBC on the grounds that Andrew Gilligan's allegations were just about "the most serious charge" anyone could level against a Prime Minister. On 9 July, Guto Harri, the BBC political correspondent, spoke of Tony Blair doing "some BBC-bashing."

That day the MoD personnel director wrote to Dr Kelly stating that his "behaviour had fallen well short of the standard he expected from a civil servant of his standing and experience", but that "it would not be appropriate to initiate formal disciplinary proceedings".

His punishment was to be different. The same day Downing Street and MoD officials began leaking details of Dr Kelly's career, designed to assist journalists to identify him. Twowere told Dr Kelly's name.

The pressure on Dr Kelly was growing. He was asked if he wanted to take his wife to Jersey, where a Foreign Office house would be made available. Dr Kelly declined.

On 10 July a number of newspapers named Dr David Kelly as the official behind the Gilligan story. They quoted government sources triumphantly insisting Dr Kelly was a middle-ranking official, not a "senior and credible source", and that he had no access to intelligence briefings - both claims are untrue. They said he had only provided some input for a background section on UN weapons inspections for the dossier, that he was not a member of the intelligence services, had not seen the key material relating to the "45-minute" claim, and was not in a position to know if Downing Street had wanted to "sex-up" the document.

The BBC countered that Dr Kelly was an "intelligence source" in the broadest sense because he knew a lot about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and would have seen secret material. But the BBC still refused to confirm Dr Kelly as its source. That day Dr Kelly, who was holidaying in Cornwall, received a summons to appear before the foreign affairs and the intelligence and security select committees on 15 July.

His appearance at the foreign affairs committee was televised. There, he was read a transcript of the Susan Watts Newsnight interview and said: "I do not recognise those comments." Asked if he had had any conversations with Gavin Hewitt, he replied: "Not that I am aware of, no. I am pretty sure I have not." Questioned on whether he had been critical of Mr Campbell to Mr Gilligan he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and closed his eyes before saying: "I cannot recall using the name Campbell in that context, it does not sound like a thing that I would say."

At the end of the 176-question grilling the Labour-dominated committee concluded that Dr Kelly could not have been the BBC's main source. To many commentators Dr Kelly came across as uneasy and evasive; and we now know at least one of his answers was untrue.

The next day, 16 July, Dr Kelly gave evidence in private to the intelligence and security committee and then, friends and family have since revealed, went home to Oxfordshire, deeply upset and unhappy. Some reports said he felt he had been humiliated by the committee, others that he felt his MoD bosses had put him in an impossible position, others that he was uncomfortable at discrepancies in his testimony.

Something now seems to have snapped for David Kelly. Had he felt - or been told - his performance hadn't been good enough? Did he fear losing his job, or calculate that his family would do better financially if he died in service? Did he fear what Mr Gilligan might say when he reappeared before the foreign affairs committee that day? Might he have learned that the BBC had a tape of his conversation with Susan Watts?

Or might he have felt he had compromised his integrity? The Baha'i faith is strong on veracity; one of its scriptures says: "The individual must be educated to such a high degree that he would rather have his throat cut than tell a lie, or think it easier to be slashed with a sword or pierced with a spear than to utter calumny."

On the face of it everything seemed normal the next morning, 17 July. Dr Kelly, finished a report for the Foreign Office. And though he e-mailed a journalist on The New York Times and wrote of "dark actors" at work around him he sent up-beat e-mails to Alistair Hay, a fellow scientist, and Roger Kingdon. "Hopefully it will soon pass and I can get to Baghdad and get on with the real job," he wrote to Mr Hay. To Mr Kingdon, his co-religionist, he wrote: "I'm hopeful things will be calming down in a week or so and I'll be going back to Baghdad."

He never did. That afternoon at 3pm - almost the exact time Mr Gilligan was again before the foreign affairs committee - David Kelly left home, telling his wife he was going for a walk. He did not return.

Just before midnight his wife alerted the police, and the next morning, 18 July, at 9.20, police found his body at Harrowdown Hill, a few miles away from his home. A post-mortem found the cause of death was bleeding from wounds to his left wrist. The fact that several incisions had been made - and that his watch appeared to have been removed whilst blood was already flowing, together with the removal of his spectacles - suggested suicide, experts said.

Not everyone agreed. Some doctors pointed out that slashing one wrist was an unreliable method of suicide. The fact that four electrocardiogram electrode pads were found on his chest aroused some people to suggestions of murder, though cardiologists said, most likely, Dr Kelly had earlier been wearing a portable monitor to diagnose a possible heart problem.

Two days later, on 20 July, the story took a new twist. The BBC acknowledged that Dr Kelly had been the primary source of its reportr. Andrew Gilligan came under renewed fire. Even if it was true, as seemed clear from the supporting evidence of Susan Watts and Gavin Hewitt that Dr Kelly had strong views about the "45-minute" claim, Mr Gilligan had gone further. He had quoted his source as asserting that "the Government probably knew that the 45 minute figure was wrong even before it decided to put it in". Critics pronounced that "sexed-up" was a phrase more to the taste of Andrew Gilligan than David Kelly.

Mr Gilligan was further damned a week later by a leak of the unpublished transcript of evidence he had given to the foreign affairs committee on his second appearance, after which he had been publicly criticised by Donald Anderson, the chairman. It purported to show that Mr Gilligan had admitted that Dr Kelly had not actually said Mr Campbell had inserted the "45-minutes" claim, but that Mr Gilligan had "inferred" it from their conversation. Mr Gilligan denied this was what he had meant, but it seemed the pressure had now shifted primarily onto the BBC.

Yet the twists were not over. News then broke that Susan Watts' conversation with Dr Kelly had been recorded. Richard Sambrook, the corporation's director of news, was said to have smiled broadly after listening to it. Some insiders said Dr Kelly mentioned Mr Campbell there too. The BBC has refused to say, but has passed the tape to Lord Hutton. Then came an admission from the Ministry of Defence that documents relating to the Government's media strategy on Dr Kelly had almost been incinerated. Unofficial reports suggested the MoD police had been called by a security guard after a senior official was discovered hurriedly shredding material. To cap it all, on the eve of David Kelly's funeral, came the tasteless and preposterous attempt by a senior No 10 official, to suggest that Dr Kelly, the Government's foremost expert on chemical and biological weapons, was a "Walter Mitty" style fantasist.

Yesterday there was yet another turn. It was reported that a two weeks ago, before Dr Kelly's apparent suicide - Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, described the man as "eccentric and unreliable."

He even went so far as to circle the side of his head, a gesture suggesting madness. And he did so at a private dinner with James Robbins, the BBC's diplomatic editor.

The Hutton inquiry takes its first evidence today. Though the story of Dr David Kelly's final days is already a lot clearer there are still plenty of questions for Lord Hutton to ask.