Lord Hutton asked yesterday why the Government was insistent on exposing David Kelly's identity when ministers had already been cleared by two committees of MPs and the BBC had withdrawn the most serious of its charges over the alleged "sexing up" of the Iraq weapons dossier.
Giving the broadest hint so far into the direction the inquiry may be heading, Lord Hutton said: "Against that background, was any thought given to the position that perhaps could have been taken, that the Government's position was now broadly vindicated and therefore there was no need to put Dr Kelly's name into the public domain?
"Is it a possible view that the allegation had already been effectively refuted, and balancing that, on the one hand, with the pressure and strain that would be placed on Dr Kelly, his name might not have been put into the public arena?''
The law lord put his question yesterday to Sir Kevin Tebbit, the most senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence. Godric Smith, one of the Prime Minister's official spokesmen, later told the hearing that Downing Street was preparing to draw a line under its feud with the BBC until Dr Kelly came forward.
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, had already told the inquiry that naming Dr Kelly was, in his view, a "good thing'' in his confrontation with the corporation.
Sir Kevin told the inquiry that the Prime Minister had made clear the investigation into Dr Kelly should be stepped up. "The implication was that he [Mr Blair] did want something done about this individual coming forward.''
The decision to expose Dr Kelly to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) was taken at the MoD by the Secretary of State, Geoff Hoon.
"The permanent under secretary at the MoD had recommended that the scientist should be allowed to appear before the Intelligence and Security Committee, where his evidence could be heard in private, but not the public exposure of the Foreign Affairs Committee, especially as that inquiry had now finished. The man had come forward voluntarily, he was not on trial.''
But after consulting Downing Street, Mr Hoon put Dr Kelly before the FAC because that was more acceptable presentationally. Asked by James Dingemans QC, counsel for the inquiry, what he thought of Mr Hoon's response, Sir Kevin said: "I acquiesced. It's perfectly reasonable. It's for ministers to decide who appears before committees, not officials. That was the secretary of state's prerogative and I accepted it.'' There was no further discussion with Mr Hoon.
Sir Kevin said: "I was saying we should show some regard for the man himself. He did come forward voluntarily. He was quite robust. He did deal with journalists quite regularly ... He was not naïve in this area. Nevertheless, he would be thrust in the public eye. It was not a trial and it seemed reasonable to ask the FAC to show some restraint.''
Mr Hoon was very anxious to make public that Dr Kelly was the source of Andrew Gilligan's "sexing up" claim. Sir Kevin said: "He was very concerned that information should be brought to light to correct, as it were, the public record that we should not be seen to be covering it up as it was highly relevant to the inquiry that the FAC was conducting.''
The distinct impression was that Sir Kevin was distancing himself from Mr Hoon, who is widely tipped to be the fall guy for the Government. On Tuesday, Mr Campbell also appeared to be following this path, criticising the MoD's strategy in naming Dr Kelly, and then pointedly praising Sir Kevin for the "compassion" he had shown towards the late scientist, without any such praise for Mr Hoon. Sir Kevin claimed that it would be in the "public interest'' for Dr Kelly to state his scepticism about the claim that Iraq was capable of launching a chemical and biological attack within 45 minutes.
He added: "If we had simply sat on this with an expert like Dr Kelly saying this about the 45 minutes we would be accused of covering up."
How the civil servants saw Dr David Kelly
10 July (Sir Kevin in a memo to Geoff Hoon)
"A further reason for avoiding two hearings ... is to show some regard for the man himself. He ... is not used to being thrust into the public eye, and is not on trial."
14 July (Memo from Colin Smith, a Downing Street official, to Tim Dowse, a Foreign Office official based in Downing Street, which came to light as Martin Howard, the deputy chief of Defence Intelligence, testified on the fourth day of the inquiry)
"DCDI is to brief David Kelly ... for his appearances ... before the FAC and ISC, and will strongly recommend Kelly is not drawn on his assessment of the dossier. Kelly is apparently feeling the pressure, and does not appear to be handling it well."
20 August (Sir Kevin to the Hutton inquiry)
"I was told that he was handling it pretty well ... I think the pressure and strain issue was not one we were aware of ... There was never any sense that he was feeling unhappy ... He was quite robust. He did deal with journalists quite regularly ... He was not naive in this area."
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