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UK Politics

Weapons scientist who was stranded in deep political waters

David Kelly never shied from talking to journalists. On that fateful day when he met the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan in the Charing Cross Hotel, he must have been looking forward to hearing about Mr Gilligan's experiences under fire in his beloved Iraq.

The leading weapons expert would have been confident that, having requested anonymity, he could enjoy an off-the-record chat. The tragedy of the Dr Kelly affair is that his innate trust that his anonymity would be protected led to his death.

Lord Hutton concluded yesterday that he was satisfied that, at their meeting, Dr Kelly had not told Mr Gilligan that the Government probably knew the 45-minute claim about Saddam's WMD was wrong when it drew up the September dossier in 2002. But Lord Hutton went on to posthumously chastise Dr Kelly for breaching civil service confidentiality rules by having an "unauthorised" meeting with Mr Gilligan in the first place.

But where would we be if the only information the public has comes from the spin machine of government? If that were the case, the public would believe that the former UN inspector - whom we now know to be one of the world's most distinguished biological experts - was a "Walter Mitty" character. This man, who helped me understand the complex world of WMD, was a scientist, not a political animal. As a scientist, he was interested in the truth.

As we now know, one factor that led to his suicide was the realisation that he had been found out for telling a lie to a parliamentary committee about a conversation he had with the BBC journalist Susan Watts. Dr Kelly was actually encouraged to talk to journalists because of his expertise. Although he was aware of certain "red lines" that he must not stray across, his conversations with journalists never got him into trouble until he wandered into the feud between Mr Gilligan and Alastair Campbell.

Dr Kelly would always scrupulously return the telephone messages I left at his Oxfordshire home. In 2001, while he was still connected to the UN weapons inspection agency, he did not mind being quoted by name. In 2002, he was just as ready to help, but preferred to remain anonymous, as he was then an "adviser" to the MoD.

My feeling is that Dr Kelly, the scientist, was out of his depth when he met Mr Gilligan, the political animal. He may have allowed himself to be drawn by the reporter, who was aggressively investigating why no WMD had been found in Iraq after the end of the war.

The fact that Mr Gilligan "outed" Dr Kelly in his now infamous e-mail to the foreign affairs committee is, of course, reprehensible. But the Government, and Dr Kelly's MoD handlers, equally failed to protect his anonymity.

Lord Hutton does say that the MoD was "at fault" for not telling Dr Kelly it would confirm his name to journalists who got it right. But he also says that it was "unrealistic" to think the name could have been kept secret indefinitely by the MoD. Sadly, Lord Hutton accepts unquestioningly the government view that there was a danger Tony Blair would be accused of a "cover up" by concealing Dr Kelly's name.

But there is a broader issue here. Our democracy depends on the protection of anonymous sources, particularly those who are in breach of the Orwellian gag orders which can be invoked by the government. But it can't have it both ways: allowing experts to talk to journalists, then accusing them of breaking the rules when they do.

The fact remains that Dr Kelly committed suicide hours after he was hounded by MoD e-mails asking for the names of journalists he had spoken to. The scientist's family expressed yesterday the hope that the Government would take measures to ensure that "no other person should have to suffer the pressure that he experienced". Quite.