Bit by bit, the real Dr Kelly emerges from the shadows

The man dismissed as a lowly technician was no such thing. By Raymond Whitaker, Paul Lashmar and Severin Carrell
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Indy Politics

It is just over a week since Dr David Kelly's body was found in the Oxfordshire countryside, yet the shock waves from his apparent suicide are still spreading.

The BBC quickly revealed that the scientist was the source for Andrew Gilligan's Today programme report which said Downing Street had intervened, against the wishes of the intelligence services, in the preparation of the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to make it "sexier". Soon afterwards Tony Blair, on tour in the Far East, announced a judicial inquiry into Dr Kelly's death.

At that point it appeared that the BBC was guilty as charged by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications: it had quoted a "middle-level technician", in the description of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), with no connection to the intelligence services and in no position to know what had happened as the dossier neared publication. A week later, however, things look very different.

It has become clear that Dr Kelly was not quite the narrowly focused specialist, with little connection to the world of spying, that he seemed when he gave evidence to the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) during its investigation of the decision to go to war in Iraq. He himself sought to create that impression before the committee, and his reasons for doing so may be significant.

It was public knowledge that Dr Kelly had a distinguished career as a leading UN weapons inspector in Iraq and had been nominated to lead the British contingent in the Iraq Survey Group, formed to take the UN inspectors' place. But we now know that not only was he probably the Government's most knowledgeable adviser on the history of Iraq's weapons programmes, but he also had a high security clearance, sat in on MI6 interrogations of Iraqi defectors and was a member of a high-level committee reviewing all the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. His value was such that he had been appointed a "special deputy chief scientific officer", a rarely used civil service grade that allowed him to move in senior circles without having administrative responsibilities.

When it came to the contents of the dossier, in short, David Kelly was certainly in a position to know what he was talking about. And it emerged that he had talked, not only to Mr Gilligan, not only to two other BBC journalists whose names were put to him by the FAC (one of whom, it turned out, had recorded the interview), but to several more reporters. The picture is of a man who had suppressed his doubts last September, only to feel growing disquiet in the aftermath of war as it became clear how wrong the Government's claims on Iraqi WMD had been.

Some have suggested Dr Kelly was an unworldly scientist led on by the reporters, but he was used to dealing with the media. He was not simply one expert among many on Iraq's weapons programmes: in his field - biological weapons - he was the expert. Although he did not seek them out, journalists came to him over the years whenever they wanted to make sure they had the details right on the efforts of the United Nations weapons inspectors to root out Iraqi WMD.

Among them was Judith Miller of the New York Times, the paper's WMD expert and the recipient of an e-mail on the day Dr Kelly died, in which he spoke of "dark actors playing games". In Germ, the 1998 book she co-wrote, she is fulsome in her praise for him as part of the "Gang of Four", the senior inspectors who forced so many admissions about WMD out of the Iraqis in the mid-1990s. More than anyone else, Dr Kelly was instrumental in getting the regime to admit the existence of its biological weapons programme.

This was an achievement for which Dr Kelly and his team deserved a Nobel prize, according to the then chief inspector, Rolf Ekeus - only for that achievement to be slighted earlier this year in The Independent on Sunday by the Prime Minister.

"The UN inspectors found no trace at all of Saddam's offensive biological weapons programme - which he claimed didn't exist - until his lies were revealed by his son-in-law," Mr Blair wrote in answer to an IoS reader's question in March. In fact, Dr Kelly's work had wrung this admission from the regime more than a month before the son-in-law defected to Jordan - according to at least one expert, it was probably what caused him to flee.

Whether or not Mr Blair's comment fed the scientist's disaffection, his conversations with journalists after the Iraq war went well beyond the usual technical subject matter. The tape of his interview with the Newsnight journalist Susan Watts is now under lock and key, pending its submission to Lord Hutton's judicial inquiry, but the words read by an actor on the programme are a virtual transcript.

"It is beginning to look as if the Government's committed a monumental blunder," Dr Kelly says of the most controversial claims in the September dossier - that Iraq had links to al-Qa'ida, and that it could deploy WMD within 45 minutes of the order being given. Of the latter, he says: "It was a statement that was made, and it just got out of all proportion. They were desperate for information ... that could be released. That was one that popped up and was seized on, and it's unfortunate that it was.

"That's why there is the argument between the intelligence services and the Cabinet Office/No 10 - because they picked up on it, and once they've picked up on it, you can't pull it back from them."

He goes on to say that in the week before the dossier was put out, many people were expressing unease about questions of accuracy and emphasis. At no point, however, was Mr Campbell named by Newsnight, as he was by Mr Gilligan in The Mail on Sunday, precipitating the row which resulted in Dr Kelly's death.

A former colleague suggested he might not have realised the full ramifications of his disclosures, saying: "He knew his microbiology through and through, he was a real expert from that point of view. Whether he had the political antennae, I'm not sure." Nor might he have realised the implications of telling his superiors at the MoD that he had spoken to Mr Gilligan, although the journalist Tom Mangold, a family friend, wrote: "David never liked the MoD, he used to complain bitterly about them."

Much of the speculation of the past week has focused on how the MoD dealt with him, and how his name was leaked to the press. On Friday the ministry denied that it had threatened Dr Kelly's pension, or told him action could be taken under the Official Secrets Act. The Independent on Sunday asked whether his security clearance had been discussed, but the MoD refused to comment.

When the scientist appeared before the FAC, however, MPs had been led to expect that he would confess to being Mr Gilligan's source. Almost inaudibly, he reinforced the impression that he was a man out of his depth, who had had no right to speculate on the interaction between the Government and the intelligence services. The atmosphere was hostile.

But then Dr Kelly said he did not think he could have been the source, and the MPs swung on to his side. Had he reneged on a deal? It is impossible to say, but it is becoming increasingly clear that he was less than truthful with the committee - denying, for example, that he had met Gavin Hewitt, the third BBC journalist, which he had done.

Whatever went on at the MoD, it must have been clear to Dr Kelly after the hearing that his security clearance might be in jeopardy, perhaps also his chances of taking up his post in Iraq, a country to which he was deeply attached. His friend and fellow weapons expert Alistair Hay, whose wife committed suicide, believes the scientist felt deeply isolated.

"It wasn't as if the MoD were saying, 'You're our man, we're supporting you to the hilt'," said Professor Hay. "He was being fed to everyone as being the person probably responsible for the Government's difficulty ... If he felt he had been less than truthful before the committee ... [and] had been caught dissembling and not being absolutely truthful, I would have thought this would create huge conflicts for him."

But did this lead David Kelly to kill himself? That is a question for Lord Hutton and the coroner, but it goes to the heart of the Government's case for going to war. How far the law lord will want to travel down that path remains to be seen.