Be in no doubt: the Government is linked to the death of a decent man

It is a national political scandal, the result of a sequence of events that taints our reputation as a haven of democracy

A very great distance separates the American Capitol, where a glowing Tony Blair this week claimed the justification of history for the war in Iraq, and the leafy Oxfordshire hillside where yesterday the body presumed to be that of David Kelly was found. No distance, however, would have been great enough to break the obvious link between the Government of this country and the death of a transparently decent man.

From its earliest and simplest beginnings, this whole affair has had more than a whiff of the vindictive and personal about it. By the time David Kelly was summoned to appear before a special session of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to face allegations that he was the BBC's unnamed "source", that whiff had become a stench.

It all started at the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, during its inquiry into "the decision to go to war in Iraq". That Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's communications director, made such a central issue of one BBC report (on the Today programme) by one BBC correspondent (Andrew Gilligan) when he testified before the Commons committee bore all the hallmarks of a diversionary tactic. Reporters like nothing better than a good old spat between the Government and the BBC, and we were duly diverted.

But the question before the committee was not the quality of the BBC's reporting, nor yet its sources. It was how and why the Government had reached its decision to go to war. It was not who had told the BBC what about Mr Campbell's role, but what Mr Campbell's role had actually been. Had he, or had he not, "sexed up" the Number 10 dossier on Iraq's weapons capability?

When it published its report two weeks ago, the committee - to its credit - put the focus back where it belonged: on the message rather than the messenger. And it fudged the answer. It acquitted Mr Campbell of the "sexing up" charge on the casting vote of the (Labour) chairman. It did not reach a conclusion about the veracity of Mr Gilligan's report, nor did it pronounce on the identity or reliability of his source.

This is where matters should have rested. Mr Campbell could claim vindication. The BBC and its correspondent were left with their dignity intact. The source, or sources, could remain in obscurity.

For reasons that are still very unclear, however - but that smack of fear at the highest level - the Government chose to pursue what was now unambiguously a vendetta against Mr Gilligan and the BBC. The Ministry of Defence continued its mole-hunt, with all the assiduousness it had applied to preparations for war against Iraq, and smoked out David Kelly. Named in a Ministry of Defence statement, issued just in time for the 6pm news, he was said to have volunteered that he met Mr Gilligan and might be "the source".

It is equally unclear why, given that its inquiry was now over and its report published, the Foreign Affairs Committee swung back into action, summoning the scholarly Dr Kelly - and on Thursday recalling Mr Gilligan. Even as Mr Gilligan sat down for his latest cross-examination before the committee, Dr Kelly - described by his wife as angry with the way he had been treated - left his home for what seems to have been the last time.

Here, I have a small interest to declare. I am not only a reporter, for whom the principle of keeping sources confidential is vital; I was also trained, and spent several years, as an employee of the BBC. Through this whole saga, it is to their side that my sympathies naturally incline. But I have also worked in many repressive countries. And over the weeks, this chain of accusation, insinuation and name-naming has reminded me of nothing so much as the witch-hunts of the KGB or its more pettily vicious Romanian counterpart, the Securitate, in the bad old totalitarian days. Others may discern parallels with McCarthyism. The injustice resides in the imbalance: the full power of the state - its information resources, its surveillance capabilities and its media machine - is mobilised against individuals ill-equipped to contest it.

In this case, the first accused, the BBC's correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, has so far had the personal resilience and, thanks to his employers, the organisational support to mount a fair resistance. Dr Kelly, a microbiologist apparently without guile and patently unused to the limelight, was destroyed. His death cannot be dismissed as an unintended consequence, nor yet "collateral damage" sustained in war. It is a national political scandal, the result of a sequence of events that taints the reputation of our country as a haven of democracy and justice and must never, ever, be allowed to happen again.

The saddest truth is that this was all so unnecessary. Or was it? Why was Downing Street, or the Government, or some part of it, so desperate to hunt down the BBC's mole and discredit the reporter that it did not call off the dogs immediately after the Commons committee report had been published? What was it about Mr Gilligan's report that so riled the Government that it elevated its investigation into a witch-hunt that has now cost a man's life?

Mr Blair, Mr Campbell, Geoffrey Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and others have stressed with great earnestness that there is no graver charge than accusing an official - in this case, Alastair Campbell - of distorting intelligence information so that it produces a false pretext for taking the country to war. This was the burden of Andrew Gilligan's report. Each individual concerned can have his own logical reasons for wanting to have it quashed. Mr Campbell and Mr Hoon, to clear their names; the Ministry of Defence, to preserve its esprit de corps and discourage the expression of dissent from the ranks; the intelligence services, to ensure the cast-iron confidentiality of their information; Downing Street, to keep an accusation such as that contained in Mr Gilligan's report from adhering in any way to the Prime Minister.

The Government's difficulty is that the essentials of Mr Gilligan's report - and reports by others in the BBC and elsewhere - have increasingly been shown to be true. There were misgivings inside the intelligence services, in the Ministry of Defence and in the Foreign Office about the way in which the arguments for war against Iraq were presented. We know that at least some of the information in the two dossiers that Downing Street published in the hope of convincing a sceptical Parliament and public was less than 100 per cent accurate. But we still do not know precisely who edited those dossiers. The course that ministers took is the logical recourse of the desperate: if you cannot discredit the report, then discredit the reporter or the source, and preferably both. The ruthlessness with which this objective was pursued is what killed David Kelly.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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