David Christopher Kelly, microbiologist and weapons inspector: born Llwynypia, Glamorgan 17 May 1944; CMG 1996; married 1967 Janice Vawdrey (three daughters); died near Longworth, Oxfordshire 18 July 2003.
David Kelly was a scientific civil servant of the highest calibre who became the UK's leading authority in the effort to prevent the development and proliferation of biological weapons around the world.
He had been my friend and professional colleague for over 16 years up to his untimely death. As someone who was involved in the policy aspects of the scientific and technological issues related to biological weapons programmes, I looked to him as my mentor. His lucid and objective explanations of complex matters in relation to this subject were invaluable.
Born in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales in the penultimate year of the Second World War, the son of a schoolteacher, Kelly was educated at the County Grammar School for Boys, Pontypridd, and had degrees in bacteriology (BSc, Leeds) and virology (MSc, Birmingham) and iridoviruses (DPhil, Oxford). He carried out research work at Warwick and Oxford universities - taking his doctorate at Linacre College in 1973 with the thesis "The Replication of Some Iridescent Viruses in Cell Cultures" - and was for a spell a Chief Scientific Officer at the Natural Environment Research Council working in the agricultural sphere, principally on insect viruses.
He came to defence and international security issues in mid- career when, in 1984, at the age of 40, he joined the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire. There he was appointed Director of the Microbiology Division, working on research into defensive measures against biological weapons. This is where I met him for the first time and found someone who was clearly enjoying his work in an environment where his inquisitive and meticulous approach was much needed and appreciated.
One of his early tasks was to oversee his department's work in the successful decontamination of Gruinard Island in Scotland, where the UK had conducted tests with anthrax as a possible weapon during the Second World War. The contaminated island, just off the coast of Wester Ross not far from Ullapool, was a legacy of a weapons programme abandoned soon after the end of the war.
The biological defence work at Porton Down was expanded and energised by Kelly's leadership, scientific competence and dedicated enthusiasm. As a result of his work, according to Graham Pearson, Director-General of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment during most of Kelly's tenure, "the UK was able to deploy a limited biological defence capability at the time of the 1991 Gulf War" and there was a longer-term legacy in that, thanks to his efforts, "Porton Down today has world-class facilities" for work on defence against biological attack.
Two near-simultaneous developments were to bring to even greater prominence Kelly's scientific and analytical talents. These were, first, the startling revelations about the existence of a clandestine biological weapons programme in the former Soviet Union and, second, the search for Iraq's nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programmes in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.
With regard to the former, Kelly made an immense contribution in the scientific understanding of information passed to the UK and US governments by defectors. This required a great deal of UK and US co-operation and delicate negotiations on very sensitive matters between senior officials from the policy and intelligence worlds. Here, as a Ministry of Defence official involved in the policy aspects of this issue, I was able to witness and benefit from David Kelly's astute understanding of international and inter-departmental interactions at the interface between science, technology and high-level policy matters.
The former Soviet Union, with the UK and the US, subscribed to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (a ban on the research, development and possession of these weapons), which made the revelations of this hidden programme of one of the three "guardians" of the treaty all the more egregious. It was more than two years later before the, by then, Russian government admitted to the existence of the illegal programme and in April 1992 declared it to have ended. Given the enormous scale and scope of the programme, involving thousands of scientists, many civilian and military facilities and a wide range of biological agents (including anthrax and smallpox) and delivery means ranging from field artillery to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the UK and US governments demanded more information and clarifications to be confident that the massive programme had truly been dismantled.
Interventions by the then US President George Bush and the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, first with Mikhail Gorbachev and later with his successor Boris Yeltsin, resulted in a trilateral agreement between Russia, the US and UK being signed in September 1992 under which visits were to be made to civilian and military biotechnological facilities suspected of being involved in a biological weapons programme. David Kelly played a leading role in the Anglo-American teams that visited a range of civilian facilities in Russia.
This was a challenging task that demanded the absorption and understanding of massive amounts of information and investigations of equipment and questioning of Russian personnel, none of whom admitted to working on biological weapons. As a fellow participant, I recall Kelly's patient and persistent questioning that wrong-footed the other side. This effort, along with his subsequent analytical work of the information gained, made a major contribution to confirming the veracity of the information gleaned from the defectors. Unfortunately, this work remains incomplete, since in 1994 the Russian side balked at allowing visits to military facilities.
Playing a leading role in the investigation of the biological weapons programme in Russia was a forbidding enough task for anyone but by 1991 Kelly was the natural choice for the UK to play a leading role in the UN inspections in Iraq arising from the ceasefire arrangements under UN Security Council Resolution 687. In the first of their obligatory "Full, Final and Complete Declarations" of the prohibited programmes in 1991, the Iraqis said that they had no biological weapons programme.
In the face of continuing denials and an elaborate concealment plan, Kelly was the key person to keep the investigative effort going during the first three years when the UN Special Commission (Unscom) was unable to uncover convincing evidence of a biological weapons programme. When I was appointed one of the Commissioners in 1993, I found among my colleagues serious doubts that such a programme existed at all or, if it did, perhaps it was simply a limited research effort.
However, encouraged by Kelly's dogged determination and analysis, the Executive Chairman of Unscom, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, reinforced the biological team. The intensified work finally brought results, and hard evidence of an offensive biological weapons programme was brought to light, forcing the Iraqis on 1 July 1995 to admit to its existence.
As a fellow Chief Inspector with David Kelly I, like others, benefited enormously from his scientific and technical skills that he willingly shared. He was no prima donna - he was above all a team player with a fine sense of loyalty to his colleagues and to the mission. For me he was a model of a Chief Inspector, on top of the technical aspects of the task, incisive in his interrogation technique and, above all, cool under pressure.
Sadly, as in Russia, Kelly's work on the Iraqi programme was to remain incomplete. Despite the forced admissions and some additional information as a result of the defection of the Iraqi General Hussein Kamal Hassan in August 1995, the Iraqis continued to conceal substantial information on the biological and other prohibited weapons programmes. By 1998 the Iraqis had ceased any effective co-operation with Unscom and that resulted in the withdrawal of the inspectors by the end of that year.
Kelly was now employed as the adviser on biological defence matters to the Ministry of Defence's Proliferation and Arms Control Secretariat; the demands of his work on the Iraqi and former Soviet weapons programmes were too great for him to retain his position at Porton Down. His expertise was also drawn upon for other work in international arms control negotiations. In recognition of his important contribution in the international sphere, in 1996, when deputy chief scientific adviser to the MoD, he was accorded the unusual distinction for a scientific civil servant of appointment as CMG. While he was not the kind of person to seek out such honours, he was immensely and justly proud of this recognition of his work.
In November 2002, when the new UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic) was sent to Iraq, Kelly, in common with other former Unscom Chief Inspectors, was not included in this new mission. However, he played an important role in the training of the new inspection teams and in advising the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as the events unfolded leading to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In my discussions with him, it was clear that he believed that the Iraqis continued to conceal important elements of a biological weapons programme and that the Unmovic inspection process was unlikely to uncover much new information within a few months or even longer.
On 18 July Kelly apparently committed suicide after being named as a source for BBC reports over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and appearing, three days before he died, before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee investigating whether the Government gave accurate information to Parliament and the public in the run-up to the 2003 Gulf War.
No doubt the inquiries in progress will reveal more about his final days. To someone who has known him for many years, seen him in a number of stressful situations and witnessed his capacity for a high volume of work, the tragic circumstances of his death are beyond comprehension. It is most important that the extraordinary public attention and political fallout arising from the events of the past month do not mask the extraordinary achievements of a scientist who loyally served not only his government but also the international community at large.
But David Kelly never sought the limelight and I salute his professionalism, his humility and his warm loyalty as a true friend. For his wife and three daughters the loss of a husband and father in such circumstances is inestimable.
Terence TaylorReuse content