Dr David Kelly.
Think you remember the David Kelly affair? The government arms inspector who killed himself thirteen years ago after a huge scandal involving Tony Blair’s Labour government, the war in Iraq and all that ?
I bet you don’t.
So a quick simple reminder. Here’s what happened:
In 2002 Tony Blair’s government was looking for valid reasons to join with the United States to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
An intelligence report published that September with No. 10’s full approval stated that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which posed a clear and present danger to the West. The report headlined the claim that Iraq could deploy and activate chemical weapons within 45 minutes of an order being given.
So Britain went to war in March 2003 assuming the dodgy dossier was the truth, and we won. Unfortunately, after the war, nobody ever found any weapons of mass destruction. As a result it slowly became obvious that the war and its terrible consequences had been based in part by the nation being hoodwinked into thinking the invasion had been justified by a government whose prime minister was simply too anxious to join the Americans into going to war in the first place.
The political crisis really began in May 2003.
David Kelly, one of the world’s top weapons inspectors, and an employee of our Ministry of Defence gave a non-attributable background briefing about the missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to Andrew Gilligan, a BBC defence reporter working for BBC Radio 4.
However the version of the Kelly briefing transmitted by Andrew Gilligan on the BBC’s Today programme claimed that his anonymous contact had told him that the published intelligence dossier had been `sexed up’ before its publication, especially that 45 minute claim – a claim that made headlines in the British press when it was published, and a claim taken very seriously by the public.
The clear implication of Gilligan’s BBC report was that the government had had a hand in an attempt to deceive the public and that Britain’s intelligence services were unhappy with this Whitehall interference. A few days later, in a story in the Mail On Sunday, Gilligan went on to claim that his source had named Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Communications Director as being behind the inflation of the language in the dossier. An act which amounted to bending the truth to suit a political aim. In other words, the prime minister himself had been responsible through his communications chief, of lying to Britain in order to join the Americans in invading Iraq.
Now that was a hell of an allegation.
Gilligan’s reports immediately brought about the biggest ever multiple car crash involving the BBC, the Government, the intelligence services, and Campbell himself. Everyone emerged from this pile up with deep wounds. Some reputations were carted off on a stretcher. Those who could, limped away. It was a bloody mess. When the smoke finally cleared, one innocent man lay dead.
The scandal ran for ever it seemed, and re-appeared once more only last year with the publication of the independent inquiry by Sir John Chilcot into the Iraq war.
Remember some of the chief protagonists?
Alastair Campbell. Director of Communications and Strategy for Number 10. Famously thin-skinned, very fast on the draw.
Andrew Gilligan. Then a controversial defence and intelligence reporter for the Today Radio 4 programme and on a contract with the BBC. He had previously had a successful career in Fleet Street.
David Kelly. Probably the most distinguished arms inspector in the Western world. It was he who had established the Soviets had been planning to bombard the West with smallpox, anthrax and plague in the event of a nuclear exchange. It was also he who, after the first war with Iraq, had found the first real evidence of Baghdad’s intention to produce nuclear biological and chemical warfare weapons of mass destruction.
John Scarlett. Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the Cabinet Office body that prepares intelligence assessments and analyses for the government. He had completed a highly successful stint at MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service and after joining JIC as its chairman, was hoping to return to MI6 eventually as its boss.
The drama may have played out nearly a generation ago, but both for the cognoscenti and new readers, the narrative remains as gripping and tragic as ever, and the events have lost none of their importance.
In order to give a refreshed perspective on scandal, I’m going to eject millions of previously published words, and slash and burn irrelevant facts to tell the story, while sticking to the essential ingredients.
So. The notorious `dodgy dossier’, claiming Iraq had retained weapons of mass destruction was published in September 2002. The intelligence file had been collated by the JIC, the Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee under its chairman Sir John Scarlett. It was he who `owned’ and took responsibility for the document. Most of its assumptions were based on intelligence submitted by Britain’s MI6, and some from the American CIA.
We now know that most of the intelligence in that dossier was rubbish, or to be more polite and quote Chilcot – “flawed” which is the same thing. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq from then until now because there never were any.
Gilligan’s BBC reports, allegedly based on David Kelly’s briefing raised very serious existentialist questions in May 2003. The stakes could not have been higher.
David Kelly, a regular contact of Gilligan’s met him at the Charing Cross Hotel for that non-attributable briefing on May 22nd 2003. Non-attributable means the journalist gives his word of honour that the name of his contact will never be revealed under any circumstances whatsoever, save to his editor who is under the same obligation.
Here’s part of Gilligan’s Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme that followed this briefing about the intelligence dossier:
John Humphrys: “….is Tony Blair saying that (weapons of mass destruction) would be ready to go in 45 minutes ?’
Gilligan: “That’s right, that was the central claim in his dossier…and what we’ve been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier was that actually the government probably knew that the 45-minute figure was wrong even before it decided to put it in…..Downing Street our source says…ordered it to be sexed up, to be made more exciting and ordered more facts to be discovered. Our source says that the dossier as it was finally published made the intelligence services unhappy….the 45-minute point was probably the most important thing that was added…..it only came from one source and most of the other claims were from two and the intelligence agencies they don’t really believe it was necessarily true…..The 45 minutes isn’t just a detail, it did go to the heart of the government’s case that Saddam was an imminent threat….but if they knew it was wrong before they actually made the claim that’s perhaps a bit more serious.”
Andrew Gilligan, sitting at home, broadcasting live on national radio did not know it, but he had just lit the fuse to the biggest detonation ever to hit Tony Blair’s Labour government. With hindsight, we know now that Gilligan was certainly on the right track. But he had made two huge, colossal, dreadful mistakes. He had inflated the language of the Kelly briefing, and fatally, he would never be able to prove that the government, or Tony Blair, or his director of Communications Alastair Campbell were directly responsible for the contents of the dodgy dossier for the very simple reason that they did not own it. It was formally owned by John Scarlett, the chairman of the JIC, and it was he who had to take full responsibility for its contents. This one error, eventually brought the house down on the BBC with repercussions rolling through Whitehall and throughout the land.
Alastair Campbell, was incandescent with rage when he learned of the Gilligan broadcast with its very serious implications for his boss the prime minister.
Now just sit back for a moment and think quietly about what that allegation was saying. The BBC, the world’s most reputable broadcasting organisation whose news reports were guaranteed to be wholly truthful and impartial had just claimed that Tony Blair might be a cheat and a liar who had, with malice aforethought led the British people to war based in part on a colossal intelligence deception organised by him or his lackeys.
This had happened on BBC Radio 4 at 6.07 in the morning.
What should have happened next and didn’t? Let me tell you.
Any half-sober, trainee apprentice deputy news editor from a provincial weekly, with an L plate pinned to his back, on day one of work experience would have had the gumption and the instinct to summon Gilligan from his bedroom, straight to the Today office, and there, asked him politely to see his shorthand notes to confirm that his source had indeed said what Gilligan alleged he had said. Quite simple. I’ve been asked that several times. It’s routine procedure whenever the office sees a shit-storm gathering a few miles away.
Had this happened, what would our work experience junior have discovered? A regular BBC notebook filled with the nice neat shorthand notes of a trained reporter ?
Er. No. Not quite.
He would have been presented by Gilligan with a small Sharp hand-held personal organiser model # ZQ-70. I’ve had a very similar model for thirty years and I can tell you that it is virtually impossible to type full contemporaneous notes of an ordinary person speaking at three words to a second on it, because the keyboard is so tiny. It just cannot be done. That’s not what that kind of organiser is for, it’s more to record names and addresses and phone numbers and diary dates and appointments and so on. I cannot believe that Gilligan made a full contemporaneous note of everything Kelly said at that longish meeting. If he made notes afterwards, based on memory they cannot be regarded as a full and reliable and accurate note of the actual words used by Kelly, and in that 6.07 broadcast, believe me, semantics were everything.
In the Gilligan case, our work experience trainee would have known immediately that this was a matter to be referred up the BBC editorial chain to more senior management.
Gilligan’s note-taking at that seminal meeting with Kelly was subsequently to be placed under forensic examination at the first enquiry into the Kelly affair chaired by Lord Hutton. It transpired there were serious problems with Gilligan’s little electronic organiser. There were ‘anomalies’ in two sets of notes covering the same thoughts of Kelly…the date stamp inside the organiser was incorrect…it was unclear whether and when David Kelly had actually mentioned Alastair Campbell as being behind the dodgy dossier deceits. “I am not quite sure when the word Campbell was mentioned during the conversation. I know it was mentioned by David Kelly. But it may have come towards the end”, Gilligan told the Hutton Enquiry. Gilligan said he had made some notes as Kelly spoke but admitted some had been made after the actual interview.
Counsel for the Hutton Enquiry said: “The absence of Mr Campbell’s name in the first set of (electronic) notes may suggest that it was more likely to be Mr Gilligan’s question than Dr Kelly’s answer” In other words suggesting Gilligan may actually have put Campbell’s name into Kelly’s mouth.
Gilligan’s own counsel told the enquiry: “Of course Andrew Gilligan did not have a verbatim note of the (Kelly) conversation. He is not a court transcriber who records every word. He is a journalist, and like most journalists he made notes.”
But in a controversial interview, and this interview with Kelly could not have been more controversial, the absence of verbatim quotes made either electronically, or in long-hand or shorthand left the journalist naked and exposed.
Gilligan said he had actually made a second set of written notes, but had done so after the interview, however sadly these had been lost, even though he had originally tucked them safely into a pocket in his computer bag.
It also transpired that he had lost his appointments diary.
At this stage most middle-ranking BBC editorial managers would surely have taken the decision that in the absence of perfect or near perfect verbatim notes of this dynamite story, and with Alastair Campbell figuratively hammering on the huge brass doors of Broadcasting House, that it might be not a bad wheeze for BBC news to have placed everything on hold. The news in that 6.07 broadcast would be frozen until and unless the precise contents of that briefing could be ascertained.
Incredibly, Gilligan’s notes were never checked at the time nor was he asked to confirm and double check with his secret contact (David Kelly) that he agreed with every single word of the broadcast.
On the day in question, I, and a senior colleague on Panorama, game-planned the whole scenario and reckoned we could, a mere six hours later, have prevented the approaching debacle by planting a simple apology on the ‘World At One’ explaining that the BBC had not wished to imply any government interference in a dossier which it did not own.
It didn’t happen.
Instead, the Corporation in a moment of delirium took the worst possible course. It mounted its very high horse, tooled up with side arms and repeater rifles and rode out to meet the government enemy and face it down. Sadly, the BBC was armed only with blanks. After the shoot-out at the not-so-OK corral, both its Director General and the Chairman of the Board of Govenors, lay prostate in the dirt.
Then it got worse.
At 7.32 am came Gilligan’s second broadcast. By this time, the government’s early shift press officers had issued a denial of the original story. “Not one word of the dossier was not entirely the work of the intelligence agencies.”, they said. Even allowing for the lousy syntax, their point was technically correct. The politicians may have commissioned the report but once again they didn’t own it.
Although Gilligan’s second broadcast toned things down a little, it was John Humphry’s introduction, an assertion that the famous dossier “had been cobbled together at the last minute” that poured another litre of high octane on to the bonfire.
By now, the entire BBC radio news apparatus was on the case, feeding as it does, on itself. Sub-editors wrote scripts with slack wording so that within a few broadcasts, the story had magnified into “BBC News has learned that intelligence officials were unhappy with the dossier….” Not true.
In fact, Kelly was not an intelligence official although he had access to and contributed to intelligence analyses in his sphere of expertise. No attempt was made by the BBC to correct this editorial inflation of the story.
Within days the fire was out of control. The BBC’s failure to either correct the misimpression or at least play the semantics game and get its facts straight allowed the notion to be gained that Tony Blair, through Alastair Campbell had deliberately interfered with the crucial intelligence report, just one attempt to trick parliament and the British people into approving the decision to invade Iraq. One should not underestimate the seriousness of this or the impact it made on No. 10 and the Ministry of Defence.
We know now, as we guessed then, that the WMD allegations were indeed not true. Their basis, submitted to the JIC by Sir Richard Dearlove, the director of MI6 were flimsy, unreliable and unconfirmed. One clue to hanky panky with the dossier, was the decision NOT to show it to a second British intelligence agency, the Ministry of Defence’s own Defence Intelligence Staff, the DIS before publication. Had this happened, the dossier would have been heavily toned down.
The DIS learned of the dossier’s content only after its publication and far too late to influence the contents. The intelligence agency was most unhappy with much of the loose wording in the dossier, and found the notorious 45 minute claim to be highly unlikely. Their top men believed that Blair and Campbell had done their best to interpret the available intelligence into a worst case scenario. Indeed, a forward written to the dossier by Tony Blair stated unequivocally that the intelligence was `beyond doubt’.
David Kelly had given a cautious briefing to Gilligan. The arms inspector had earlier told me that he was fairly confident that Saddam might well have “a deeply recessed WMD programme” but no more. David also told me that the 45 Minute claim was “risible”.
So Gilligan and the BBC got it half right but for the wrong reasons. No-one from then until now has been able to prove the broadcast’s most contentious allegations of direct government involvement and deceit. This left the BBC vulnerable to a counter-attack by Whitehall which, when it came was devastating and took the life of David Kelly and the reputation of the BBC.
After the broadcasts, it now became important for both Gilligan, and the MOD – the employers of Kelly; and No. 10. to unmask Gilligan’s secret, anonymous source. Gilligan because it would prove he had a strong and well placed informant, the MOD because whoever the source was, would need to be rooted out and publicly chastised, and No. 10 to be able to claim that the informant had absolutely no evidence of direct political involvement in the dodgy dossier’s contents.
In fact, with all honesty Kelly outed himself to his MOD employers, and was open enough to tell them that although he did not recognise much of Gilligan’s now notorious broadcast, he did recall having met and spoken to him. He denied absolutely having named Campbell as the man who insisted on including the 45 minute claim.
Let’s take a breather.
It’s worth mentioning here that David Kelly, the world’s leading nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction inspector had always been allowed, even encouraged to brief the media. His bosses held him in such high regard and trust that he had become the go-to man for journalists of all stripes all over the world.
When I was writing my book on germ warfare, David, by now a friend and contact, came to my house and spoke to me for seven solid hours without even a pee break, refusing my wife’s cups of coffee and giving me more gold standard information in that time than I had quarried in three months before. Sir Richard Hatfield, Personnel Director at MOD and Kelly’s erstwhile boss, confirmed that Kelly’s media skills and discretion as a briefer over twelve years were to be praised.
The Kelly I knew so well was a quiet, self-effacing and serious man. He exuded authority, and his knowledge was unmatched. He could look at scarring in an explosive decompression chamber and tell you who was cooking what ghastly chemical or biological weapon for the future. The Soviets and KGB loathed him, and he once reduced the unappetising `Toxic Taha’ Iraq’s head of Biological weapons into an hysterical breakdown through his quiet and insistent questioning. He was not a political animal, and while he did regard the 45 minute allegation in the dodgy dossier as risible, he told me he also believed Iraq might well have what he called a ‘deeply recessed programme for weapons of mass destruction’. He had quibbles with the dodgy dossier but they were more semantic than anything else.
Let me resume the narrative.
During the month of May 2003, Kelly had spoken not only to Gilligan but to several journalists always on a strictly non-attributable basis. This included a conversation with BBC Newsnight’s Susan Watts, the programme’s Science Correspondent, to whom he gave a similar briefing to the one he had given Gilligan. He also spoke to the BBC News reporter Gavin Hewitt (at my recommendation). Neither Watts nor Hewitt recall him taking a strongly hostile view about any political interference with the dossier, although he did tell Hewitt that ‘No 10. Spin had come into play’. This of course was true.
There was no love lost between the BBC journalists Susan Watts and Andrew Gilligan. She would not even speak to him. She said: “I feel that there were significant differences between what Dr Kelly said to me and what Andrew Gilligan has reported that Dr Kelly said to him… He did not say to me that the dossier was transformed in the last week. He certainly did not say the 45 minutes claim was inserted either by Alastair Campbell or by anyone else in government. In fact, he denied specifically that Alastair Campbell was involved, in the conversation on 30 May.” However in a subsequent interview Kelly had told her he thought Campbell had been responsible for ‘sexing up’ the dossier, but she regarded this comment as a “gossipy aside” and did not use it in her broadcast.
It is certain that Kelly expressed unhappiness with some of the wording of the dodgy dossier and that he implied this may have been the result of government pressure. Why should he be blamed when he was damn right about that? At the same time, he briefed with great caution because he had no more proof of government interference than did the BBC.
I’m reasonably certain that David’s reservations about the wording and some of the conclusions of the dodgy dossier came not just from his own specialised knowledge, but from what he learned from the intelligence agency with which he was most closely associated, the Defence Intelligence Staff – the MOD’s own intelligence agency.
We know the DIS (unlike MI6 the major intelligence gathering agency) had their serious reservations about the dodgy dossier. They much preferred a wiser ‘semantic’ route in their intelligence assessments, where the difference between ‘may’, ‘could’, ‘would’ etc are not just pedantic but hugely important in the wilderness of mirrors which is intelligence gathering and analysis. Dr Brian Jones, a former senior defence intelligence official, was deeply unhappy with the wording of the dossier which he regarded as ‘over-egged’; the 45 minutes claim he regarded as ‘nebulous’ (a posh euphemism meaning rubbish).
Why had the DIS had deliberately been kept out of the loop on the drafting of the dossier? Think it through. This was not a dossier that required careful and circumspect wording. To the contrary.
In the event the decision to keep DIS in the dark led to a serious reprimand by a second official and independent investigation, the subsequent Butler Report, a review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction which concluded: “It was wrong that a report (the dodgy dossier) which was of significance in the drafting of a document of the importance of the dossier was not shown to key experts in the DIS who could have commented on the validity and credibility of the report”
An ever firmer condemnation for keeping the DIS out of the loop came from the third official investigation – the Chilcot Enquiry report published this year. “The SIS (MI6) report should have been shown to the relevant experts in the Defence Intelligence Staff… expert officials (of which) questioned the certainty with which some of the judgements in the dossier were expressed”
While we know now that the dodgy dossier was rubbish in many, many respects but there is a small element of hindsight here. For example, in favour of some of its assumptions about the existence of WMD in Iraq, it is not generally known that shortly after the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British divisions, three Russian-made Ilyushin 76 cargo planes were tracked by British intelligence, and seen flying from an airport near Baghdad to an airport in Southern Russia. The flights were organised by the notorious Russian ‘Merchant of Death’, the freelance arms dealer and smuggler Victor Bout, currently serving life without parole in a United States maximum security prison. MI6 were unable to establish what the cargo was on board those flights. At about the same time, the British also tracked several convoys of Iraqi military lorries that travelled at night, lights out, from Iraq to Syria. Again, contents unknown.
It is fair to speculate that the planes and lorries might have been carrying elements of a nascent chemical weapons programme which the Russians had been helping Saddam Hussein’s regime with, just as they were involved in the chemical weapons programme of neighbouring Bassam Assad’s regime in Syria.
The last thing the Russians would have wanted is for the West to find their fingerprints on any weapons of mass destruction programme in Iraq.
However, those cargoes may just as obviously have been the nation’s gold or currency reserves, so because it was not possible to establish what was actually decanted to Syria and Russia, no formal MI6 report was made of the incidents, and nothing of these events went into the dodgy dossier.
John Scarlett chairman of the JIC and “owner” of the dossier was a skilled intelligence officer with a fine history in MI6 including handling the KGB defector Oleg Gordiewski, the man who helped bring the cold war to an end.
Scarlett was understandably anxious to become director of MI6 but a civil service age rule was against him. This requirement determined a candidate for the top job needed to be under 55 years of age if he were an internal applicant. However, perversely the rule does not apply to external applicants, and Scarlett sensibly left MI6 and joined the JIC as chairman in order to apply for the Director’s post as an external candidate even though he older than 55.
The interviewing panel for this post is chaired by the Cabinet Office Secretary and includes a handful of Whitehall’s great and good including the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It would obviously have been in Scarlett’s interests to maintain a close working relationship with No. 10, and it is no secret that Alastair Campbell came to regard Scarlett as ‘a mate’.
I have also been told that even after the whole Kelly affair, Scarlett still went to some considerable lengths in the spring of 2004 to influence the reporting of what had and what had not been found in Iraq. The Iraq Survey Group comprising 1400 experts had been despatched under UN authority to scour Saddam’s defeated republic for the weapons of mass destruction promised by the dodgy dossier. When the army of experts realised there was nothing to be found, Scarlett attempted to lean on the truth by having language inserted into the official report which simply did not reflect the facts on the ground. Had he succeeded this would have politically helped Blair off the hook of his own embarrassment at the absence of these weapons. One of the inspectors told me in some detail what he claims had happened.
The Iraq Survey Group, he said, was due to report that it had drawn a complete blank and found nothing in Iraq – a major embarrassment for John Scarlett’s JIC, Britain’s MI6 and Tony Blair all of whom had become involved in the dodgy dossier which outlined all the supposed threats posed to Britain by weapons of mass destruction allegedly held by Saddam’s busted republic.
The Iraq Survey Group had been led by David Kay, a pugnacious Texan but even he finally resigned the Group in January 2004 and told the U.S. Congress that despite all the intelligence there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The American intelligence predictions had been as lamentable as the British.
Kay’s revelation sent shock waves through London for obvious reasons. Both the British and the Americans launched an immediate damage limitation exercise. Scarlett contacted the Group’s headquarters in Saddam’s old Perfumed Palace outside Baghdad and did his best to encourage them to include what became known as ‘ten golden nuggets’ into their final report on what they had or had not found.
One of the nuggets was that Iraq had been running a smallpox programme – untrue. Another was that Iraq was building a ‘rail gun’ as part of an aggressive nuclear programme – untrue. Another nugget claimed Iraq had two mobile chemical weapons laboratories – untrue.
Scarlett and officials in London and from the CIA in Washington all tried to influence the Iraq Group’s final report. They were only partially successful and the final report was too brief and anodyne to make the required impact. But Scarlett’s ambivalent role in this did not go unnoticed.
As far as his ownership of the dodgy dossier was concerned he took heavy flack from the Butler Report that “it was a serious weakness that the JIC’s warnings on the limitations of the (dodgy) intelligence dossier underlying its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier… more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear.” As far as the infamous 45 Minute Claim was concerned: “We conclude that the JIC should not have included the ‘45 Minute’ report in its assessment without stating what it should have referred to.”
The Chilcot Enquiry was even tougher on his role as chairman of the JIC. “At issue”, concluded Chilcot, “are the judgements made by the JIC and how they and the intelligence were presented including Mr Blair’s foreword…” Chilcot determined that neither parliament nor the public would have distinguished between the separate authorities included in the dossier, and would have failed to distinguish between the intelligence view and the political view.
Blair had written in a foreword to Scarlett’s report that the “assessed intelligence” had “established beyond doubt” that Saddam Hussein had “continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons….” In fact, stated Chilcott, “the assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons. “Furthermore: “At no stage was the hypothesis that Iraq might not have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined by either the JIC or the policy community”
It only took a couple of years for most of the intelligence in the dodgy dossier to be exposed as flawed. The 45 Minute claim came from a single source who was found to be lying. Other intelligence, equally valueless from a defector known only as ‘Curveball’, had come via the Germans and hadn’t even been double checked by MI6 who were denied access to the defector.
Scarlett had shared the “ingrained belief” of most in British intelligence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. When nothing was found, Scarlett told No. 10 that he thought that most sites associated with WMD production had been “cleansed”.
Nevertheless, Scarlett did finally achieve his ambition and his work as chairman of the JIC was rewarded by his appointment as the new Director of MI6.
A few months earlier in the long hot summer of 2003 in London, David Kelly now began a fight to save his reputation, his job and his pension. The MOD carefully allowed his name to become known to the media as Gilligan’s informant. Kelly was then called to give an account of himself to Richard Hatfield his MOD personnel director.
In an interview on Friday July 4th starting at 11.30 am and lasting just short of two hours, the Ministry of Defence took the gentle Kelly apart piece by piece. His terrible crime? He’d talked to Gilligan without clearance and Gilligan’s report had deeply embarrassed the government. Never mind that Kelly protested he hadn’t said most of what the BBC reporter had claimed. Punishment for this offence should have been a rap on the knuckles. But Hatfield decided to treat Kelly as major miscreant. So now this highly distinguished scientist, an exemplar of his particular discipline, a man of considerable honour, and one who had specifically been cleared to talk to the press world-wide, was pulled up short and threatened with the loss of career and even pension. In trying to help journalists understand the complexities in the world of arms control, Kelly was deemed to have committed an egregious error.
Hatfield hurled absurd jobsworth accusations at Kelly of “breaches of normal standards of civil service behaviour and departmental regulations by having had unauthorised and unreported contacts with journalists” – a crime about as serious as spilling coffee all over someone’s papers on a desk.
This was the great arse-covering operation by a faceless functionary who could blame Kelly directly for the storm that had broken over Whitehall since the Gilligan broadcast. It was hypocritical and unworthy.
Incidentally at this meeting, where Kelly defended himself as best he could, it is interesting to note that Kelly said Gilligan “took notes but did not appear to have a tape recorder”. Surely he would have remarked on Gilligan trying to type on his tiny organiser if this had indeed been the case – yet another clue to suggest Gilligan never did make a full contemporaneous note of the discussion.
The conclusion of Hatfield’s pompous interrogation of the hapless Kelly was to generously give him the benefit of the doubt, not take disciplinary action but write him a formal letter “to record my displeasure at his conduct”. Then came the killer:
“Finally I warned Dr Kelly that any further breaches would be almost certain to lead to disciplinary action (something) that could be re-opened if further facts came to light that called his (Kelly’s) account and assurances into question.”
In other words, if you haven’t revealed all your recent media contacts, or there is a next time, you get the Red Card.
Under the weight of the interrogation, Kelly had given assurances that he had not given any other unauthorised interviews on the subject of the dodgy dossier to the press. But this was not true. Who can blame him? He was close to retirement and fighting for his job his reputation and his pension. To leave the MOD with a clean slate and the highest esteem of his colleagues in the field was crucial to David’s present and future. Would you or I have omitted to disclose all contacts under these circumstances? Come on, be honest.
Four days later, the cold and ruthless spy chief John Scarlett happily joined in the Kelly witch-hunt. In a note sent to the Co-ordinator of Security and Intelligence at the Cabinet Office he wrote: “Kelly needs a proper security style interview in which… inconsistencies (in his accounts) are thrashed out… I think this is rather urgent. Happy to discuss.” I bet he was. So here, incredibly was one of the chief perpetrators of serious miscalculations and errors, and actual owner of the notorious dodgy dossier with its rubbish intelligence analysis, happily suggesting the innocent David Kelly be given a touch of the jolly old third degree, in order to help keep the heat away from himself. Nice.
Eleven days later. By July 15th some people in the Westminster bubble, but not everyone, knew that Kelly had been Gilligan’s confidential informant. On that day Kelly, under suspicion as Gilligan’s source, had been summoned to appear as a witness in front of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. He could have busked his way through it but for one terrible ambush.
As well as being Gilligan’s informant, David Kelly had also, in all innocence given a couple of non-attributable briefings to Susan Watts on BBC’s Newsnight programme, in which he had covered similar ground about the dodgy dossier together with his reservations about some of the wording. Susan, a substantially different kind of reporter to Gilligan, quite legitimately tape recorded that interview, not for transmission but so that she would have a verbatim record of this important briefing. (I have always wondered why she never warned David she was using a recorder.) In the event, David didn’t know she had taped him. A fatal mistake as it turned out.
When her account of this briefing was transmitted by Newsnight on BBC 2, Gilligan immediately recognised the tone of the content, and assumed, correctly, that Kelly had also been her confidential informant.
Because he was under enormous pressure over the accurate details of his infamous 6.07 broadcast, he realised it would be greatly to his advantage if it could be shown that not only had the same man briefed both himself and Susan Watts, but he had said roughly the same things to Watts as he had said to himself. This would help legitimise his position. But first, Gilligan needed Kelly’s name to be publicly revealed. He desperately needed to flush him out. Furthermore, because of Kelly’s stature in the business, it would help Gilligan no end to show the world that his contact was not some mini-cab driver, but a real primary source. Gilligan had everything to gain by exposing Kelly.
So he did something, journalistically quite despicable.
He deliberately blew his source, breaking the unspoken but historic bond between journalist and source without which journalism could never survive.
In the national scheme of things, I fear journalists are about as respected as estate agents or street cleaners. But believe it or not, we do have one unwritten code of honour. On request we will always give our word of honour to a source, that we will never, I mean never, divulge his name no matter what the pressure. We will willingly have needles stuck in our eyes or commit contempt of court rather than implement a legal order to reveal a source. We don’t think twice about it. It is the one weapon in our armoury, and there are no circumstances in which we would ever relinquish its power. Without this code of honour, there would have been no Watergate exposure, no revelation of organised and systemic child abuse in Rotherham, indeed investigative journalism would simply wither, and with it, the power of the Fourth Estate and one of the strongest pillars of democracy.
In fifty years of investigative reporting I have never disclosed a source except to my editor who is bound by exactly the same code as am I. In fact a good mutual friend of Kelly’s and mine, Judy Miller of the New York Times, went to prison for several months in 2003 for refusing to obey a court order to reveal her source, coincidentally, in connection with a story she published about the war in Iraq.
But Andrew Gilligan had no qualms about dishonouring our trade.
Before the Foreign Affairs Meeting, he sent a personal email to David Chidgey, then the Liberal Democrat MP on the committee blowing David Kelly as the source not of his own briefing, but of the briefing Kelly gave to Susan Watts. It was an extraordinary betrayal. To make matters worse, the email Gilligan sent gave him the impression of being a background note prepared by the BBC. The note also implied that Kelly might also be Gilligan’s own source. The wink was good as the nod. The result was catastrophic.
Unaware of the trap that had been set, Kelly survived a difficult, filmed, committee hearing which probed into his journalistic contacts. He agreed having spoken to Susan Watts but only way back in the past. Then David Chidgey suddenly asked him if he recognised a quote from the Susan Watts’ broadcast that had been inspired by Kelly’s confidential briefing. A direct quote, all 105 words verbatim was read to him. David successfully dissembled and used clever language to evade the truth.
Now if David had been thinking on his feet, he would have realised that such a long verbatim quote could only have come from his briefing to Watts, either if she had taken a fluent shorthand note (few reporters do) or if she had taped it. But David had been through the wringer for several days, the committee room was unbearably hot, he’d been grilled for hours, but above all, he simply had to lie because he had never disclosed the Watt’s briefing to his superiors at the MOD, indeed he had denied giving any further `unauthorised briefings’ to any journalists. And don’t forget, Richard Hatfield had shown him the yellow card. One more infringement – and he’d be out. What could David do apart from dissemble to the committee?
At first, it looked as if David what get away with it. Chidgey didn’t follow through with more questions after his initial probe.
But then came what was to be the coup de grace for Kelly. MP Richard Ottaway returned to the hunt and re-read him the 105 word quote from Watts’ broadcast, adding:
“There are many people who think you were the source of that quote. What is your reaction to that suggestion?”
“It does not sound like my expression of words”, Kelly wriggled, “it does not sound like a quote from me.”
Then the yes or no killer from Ottaway: “You deny that those are your words?”
Kelly, now signing his own death sentence simply answered “Yes”.
Gilligan’s trap had been sprung with dreadful consequences.
Subsequently, Gilligan said he had “only guessed” that Kelly was Watts’ source, but that’s not what his email told the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was later to apologise for the betrayal. It was a tad late for that.
David was already dead.
In fact, the BBC reporter took steady fire during this affair.
He had himself testified in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee where he had been declared “an unsatisfactory witness”. His own editor (of the Today programme) had written an internal memorandum at the BBC condemning Gilligan’s famous broadcast as “marred…by loose use of language and lack of judgement” – a very serious criticism of any reporter allowed to broadcast live without script checks. The chairman of the BBC expressed his “enormous regret” at Gilligan’s betrayal memo. The controversies surrounding the apparent electronic organiser notes debacle and the mystery of Gilligan’s missing hard copy notes were never satisfactorily resolved. Finally, Lord Hutton determined that he too was not satisfied that Kelly had made some of the key allegations Gilligan had claimed.
The moment the BBC’s Head of News Richard Sambrook heard about Gilligan’s betrayal memo, he called the reporter to his office and ordered him to clear his desk and resign instantly.
Gilligan went on to join the Evening Standard where he became the editor’s attack dog in the campaign to get rid of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London. He then joined the Sunday Telegraph but was subsequently made redundant. He has since joined the Sunday Times as a senior correspondent.
After David Kelly’s gruelling FAC hearing the scientist drove off with a Wing-Cdr John Clark, his unofficial Ministry aide-de-camps, muttering that now he wasn’t sure about that infamous Watts quote, that he had been taken completely by surprise when he heard it, and he was worried he may have made a mistake. The issue was beginning to haunt him.
It is my firm belief that David lied to save his job, reputation and pension, and he knew he had lied because his personnel director had threatened him with serious disciplinary action if any further unauthorised media briefings emerged. While Susan Watts would have walked on broken glass to protect Kelly as her source, no-one could predict the Gilligan betrayal.
Yet, paradoxically, on the morning of the day of his suicide only three days after the FAC hearing, David had clearly regained some of his former composure and confidence. He had bluffed the committee, denying not only the Watts briefing, but (I’m sure for the same reason) the briefing he gave the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt. He also failed to mention an interview of sorts he had given a Sunday Times reporter who had door-stepped him at his home during the worst days of the crisis.
The good news for him was that he was due to return to his beloved Baghdad and the job he adored. On the day of his suicide, he had even agreed precise flight arrangements for the trip, and a booking was made for July 25th. He also sent a handful of optimistic “Phew what a dreadful week, but I’ll soon be back on the job”… type emails to several of his friends. All the evidence of his behaviour up to about 11.00am on that awful day shows the old Kelly, back on form, ready to unmask yet more of the evil people threatening the West with their ghastly weapons of mass destruction.
So what happened after 11.00am to change his optimism, and tip him into a deep and fatal depression?
The day had begun with David at his Oxford home with his wife Janice. Back at his office at the MOD, David’s line manager had received four parliamentary questions. All of them were broadly aimed at exposing Kelly as a civil servant who had broken the rules in talking to Gilligan and Susan Watts, and anticipating the consequent disciplinary action. These were by and large questions that had already been dealt with when Richard Hatfield gave Kelly the severe reprimand and the warning that if anything else emerged showing he had given an unauthorised interview he would be in for the chop.
But we know now that Kelly still had three briefings to hide from his bosses at the MOD.
On that fateful July 17th, just when it looked to David that he had got away with it, including his evasions in front of the FAC, just as he was on the verge of bounding free of the whole bloody mess, and returning to his beloved work in Baghdad, the second shoe dropped.
Throughout this last morning, David had exchanged a number of routine telephone calls with his aide, Wing-Cdr Clark. They had agreed the date for his flight to Baghdad. But, ominously, Clark had also been receiving requests for ‘clarifications’ on David’s contacts with some specific journalists. In fact, the MOD had prepared two lists of journalists. One was his contacts generally with journalists, harmless contacts if you like, names that included Susan Watts (David had never denied being a contact of hers before the scandal had broken) myself as it happens, and some twenty other reporters. However, the second list included names of reporters to whom very specific and controversial briefings had been given. This ‘specific’ list obviously included Andrew Gilligan.
Clark now mentioned to Kelly that the MOD’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary’s office had suggested that Susan Watts name be transferred from the harmless ‘general’ list to the much more dangerous ‘specific’ list. In other words, despite Kelly’s evasions in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee, his bosses were not happy with his answers to questions about the Susan Watts briefing. There would be more to come.
The trap set by Gilligan remained set.
It got worse.
During that morning Wing Cdr Clark had been contacted by the Private Secretary to Geoffrey Hoon the Secretary of State for Defence who referred to an article written by a Sunday Times reporter on July 13th referring to David Kelly, and quoting him. Kelly had also failed to give the reporters name to Hatfield during his interrogation, and the name was also missing from the general list of journalists. Clark had been asked to ask Kelly about this journalist.
So, you can detect what was beginning to happen to Kelly after about 11.00am. His dissembling about Susan Watts, together with the failure to mention the Sunday Times reporter, were coming back to haunt him. It seemed more and more likely that he would be recalled by Richard Hatfield, his personnel director, and this time, evasions and dissembling would not save him. His enemies were lining up to stab him, the MOD couldn’t wait, nor could John Scarlett, the ‘owner’ of the dodgy dossier, nor could Andrew Gilligan.
I knew David well enough to know that he had a brain that could boil water, a brain that told him instantly the moment every escape door in his life had been closed to him. All the evidence points inexorably to that moment being reached at about 11.00am.
I think it is possible, I have no evidence, that he may have learned that the BBC had a tape of his interview with Susan Watts and that this would eventually be revealed, an event that would instantly nail the lie he had told the FAC. Janice Kelly herself, in private correspondence with me, also believes this may have happened, and would help account for what transpired.
Janice noted that around 11.00am he went alone into the sitting room all by himself without saying anything “which was quite unusual for him” Later, she explained “He just sat and looked really, really tired.”
Janice was so upset with the sudden change in his condition that she went upstairs and was physically sick “several times…because he looked so desperate.”
At lunchtime his mental condition worsened. “We sat together at the table opposite each other, I tried to make conversation. I was feeling pretty wretched, so was he. He looked distracted and dejected. I just thought he had a broken heart…he had shrunk into himself, he looked as though he had shrunk… he could not put two sentences together. He could not talk at all.”
I could be wrong, but I have very little doubt knowing David as I did, that he had calculated the odds of his surviving the witch hunt by parliament, his Ministry bosses, and Gilligan were zero.
David was working class from the Rhondda Valley, a place where one either went into the mines, or was unemployed. He struggled over these class and environmental hurdles to become a brilliant scientist and a world-wide renowned arms inspector in a rare discipline but one that depended extensively not just on his scientific knowledge, but on his reputation for total honesty.
I interviewed, in New York at the UN, every one of his many arms- inspector colleagues from all over the world, Australia, Russia, UK, Germany, the US. Every single one without exception regarded him as the arms inspector’s arms inspector. I never ever heard a single world spoken about him that was not full of praise or at best, of sheer awe at his remarkable skills, his wonderful character, his focused style, and his endless successes. For example, when the Americans discovered two “mobile biological warfare laboratories” in Iraq after the war, a ‘success’ that was even trumpeted by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN Security Council, it was David Kelly who flew out, examined them, and immediately recognised them for what they really were, harmless weather balloon supply vehicles.
Only David Kelly had the power and authority to condemn the liars who denied they were working on WMD programmes, be they minor functionaries or heads of state.
But if Kelly were to be exposed as a man who had himself lied in front of a high court of parliament committee of enquiry, then his reputation wasn’t worth a spent bullet. It wouldn’t even matter if he were fired from his job and found a new role. Events alone would disgrace him for life. I know for certain that’s how David’s mind worked – cold dispassionate logic, no self-deception or vain hopes, no denial of the obvious, no equivocation. Without his professional reputation, his self-esteem would vanish, while professionally, he would become unuseable. What kind of prospect was that for a man one year short of retirement with a whole new future ahead as a contracted investigator, or hired as a top gun in a major American think-tank (a post was waiting for him to fill).
At around 3.00pm, David went upstairs, took 29 of Janice’s co-proxamol tablets, went back downstairs, collected his gardening knife and a small bottle of water and left the house. Janice assumed he was just going on his regular afternoon walk.
Shortly after he had left, he met a neighbour with whom he exchanged pleasantries. He showed no signs of distress. He wouldn’t. Nor would he leave a hypocritical suicide note knowing what terrible pain he was about to inflict on his family. To him, suicide was the only logical exit when everything else was denied him. He was not propelled by passion in this last hour of his life. It was just another assignment. He didn’t fail at those, ever.
He went to his favourite spot, a small glade on Harrowdown Hill. There he sat down, removed his watch so he could access his wrist with his knife, swallowed the tablets, and shortly afterwards died. There was not the slightest mystery of the manner of his death.
Professor Hawton, Professor of Psychiatry at Oxford University had no doubts about the motive for David’s suicide.
“As far as one can deduce the major factor was the severe loss of self-esteem, resulting from his feeling that people had lost trust in him and from his dismay at being exposed to the media…. I think he would have seen (this exposure) as being publicly disgraced… he is likely to have begun to think that, first of all, the prospects for continuing in his previous work role were diminishing very markedly… and he was beginning to fear he might lose his job altogether.”
Professor Hawton correctly assumed that the effect Hatfield’s interrogation and warning might have had on David, together with the imminent parliamentary questions which would have exposed his lie about the Watts interview. It was after all, only a matter of time before the BBC would reveal that it had a tape of the briefing he claimed never to have given.
So ended the life of an honourable and decent man, a big fella caught in the not so friendly cross-fire of pygmies.
Understandable I suppose…and deeply depressing.
The Chilcott Inquiry into Iraq finally exonerated David Kelly by proving that Britain’s spy chiefs had been only too eager to please Whitehall with flawed weapons intelligence. Indeed, David would have been astonished at how right he had been.
Chilcott has helped Britain reach some closure over the Iraq war, but the intelligence debacle, and the death of trust in our spy services and our politicians has been a heavy price.
And the collateral damage? The one innocent man who had to pay with his life. What a bloody waste.
 The Hutton Enquiry And Its Impact. Guardian Books. P.370
 The Hutton Enquiry and its Impact. Pp370-1.
 Ibid. P.293
 Ibid. P292.
 Ibid P.38
 The Butler Report.A Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction. 2004.
 The Chilcot Enquiry. Paras 530/1.
 Confidential informant.
 Confidential informant.
 Mail On Sunday.Tom Mangold. 1.8.04.
 Ibid Para 566.
 TM.i/v Richard Sambrook.June 2016.
 Secondary source quoting a call from Gilligan.
 Lord Hutton Enquiry.
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