The editor of the London Evening Standard phoned me at about 8.30am on the morning of 17 July 10 years ago and warned me that David Kelly, the government scientist, had gone missing. I phoned Janice, his wife. She was beside herself but a streak of optimism remained evident – he might have had a heart attack on his walk; he just needed to be found; it would be all right.
No, I thought to myself, David is dead. He was not the type to go missing for some 18 hours while walking near his home.
His body was found at 9.20am.
Like so many persistent journalistic contacts, David Kelly had morphed into becoming a friend. Not only did he know more about weapons of mass destruction than any man alive, but he was good, easy company. We always met in New York while he was working with Unscom as an arms inspector, and then we met socially in London. On one occasion, I interviewed him at my home for eight hours without a break. When my wife chided me about the rigours of the session, David just grinned and said he could do this all day.
This was the man whose razor-sharp questioning had reduced the vile “Toxic Taha” (Dr Rihab Taha, Iraq’s leading biologist and the woman behind Iraq’s biological weapons programme) to screaming impotent rage; this was the man who saw behind the Soviet’s desperate attempts to hide a completed ballistic missile programme armed with specially treated smallpox and anthrax warheads that, if fired, would probably have ended human life in the West. David was a very tough, clever and proud operator. The conspiracy theories followed and haunted his suicide. They persist now, a decade on.
Kelly was surely murdered; the Hutton inquiry which replaced a formal inquest was part of the government conspiracy to cover it up. This was, and remains the view of loonies, the useful idiots, the Blair haters, the usual suspects among professional conspiracy theorists, the rank amateurs, the paranoids and even a Liberal Democrat MP. All of them said or wrote books or got me dragged out of bed at first light to argue with them on the Today programme, each one convinced that a clear and obvious suicide had actually been a cunning murder.
If these people are right, consider who is either directly involved in the plot, or is so stupid as not to see an assassination when it happens in front of their eyes. Namely: the whole of the Thames Valley Police Force, uniform and detective, the Regional Special Branch; MI5; MI6; CIA; Scotland Yard; Lord Hutton and his team of lawyers; the Home Secretary; Tony Blair, not forgetting scores and scores of independent and very hungry investigative journalists from all over the world – to name just a few.
And ,oh yes, I nearly forgot. Every murder needs a motive, an opportunity and a logical perpetrator. But there is nothing. To the contrary, there was no reason to kill David; there was certainly no opportunity (ever tried forcing 29 co-proxamol tablets down an unwilling human throat?) and there has never been a hint of who might have done the deed.
Sadly, conspiracy theories grow like choking green algae in oxygen-starved waters. If only the conspiracy nuts were right – then poor investigative journalists like me would be rolling in dosh instead of eking out our humble lives on subsistence fees. If only Elvis Presley were alive; if only Marilyn Monroe had been murdered by the mafia using a toxic tampon; if only Lord Lucan would telephone me at home; if only Lee Harvey Oswald ... get the picture ?
David Kelly was working-class Rhondda Valley who became a credit to his background and was to serve his country and the free world with considerable distinction. He belonged to no man, and was picky, fussy, nuanced and detailed in his attitudes to his work and his conclusions. He rarely committed himself to hasty soundbite sum-ups in the complex world of WMD. His detective work as an arms inspector was without peer. He could spot strange and unexplained explosive scars in Soviet weapons test chambers; he knew the educational background of biological warfare specialists in Iraq, what they had studied and why they studied it. It was David who discovered the Iraqis had modified Czech MIG trainers to accommodate spray tanks (made in England) on their wings filled with anthrax and targeted at Israel.
But he was out of his depth when it came to biased journalism, the politics of the Ministry of Defence and its bully-boy executives and the one true conspiracy, namely the determination of the British and American governments to find an excuse to attack Iraq.
The intelligence fiascos, the dodgy dossiers, the fake defectors such as the risible “Curveball’ in Germany, the nonsense claims that Saddam Hussein had been shipping yellowcake ore (to make nuclear weapons) from Niger to Iraq; the fact that honest politicians such as Colin Powell himself were mercilessly deceived by compliant and naive intelligence agencies – all that was a bit over David’s pay grade.
Trapped, by dubious journalism; caught in a fight to the death (his death as it transpired) between the BBC and Whitehall; impelled to lie at an important parliamentary committee hearing, his pension at risk; his ace reputation (which meant everything to him) in the balance, his marriage no longer a success; imminent retirement – all this, and a little more, drove this fine man to end it all exactly 10 years ago in a small wood not far from his Oxford home.
What a terrible waste.