Andrew Gilligan - ten years of reflection
The betrayal of Dr David Kelly, 10 years on
Andrew Gilligan, the journalist at the centre of the 'dodgy dossier’ row, reflects on the shocking facts that have emerged since Dr David Kelly’s death
By Andrew Gilligan
7:00AM BST 21 Jul 2013
I still remember, of course, how I heard about David Kelly’s death. It started with an early-morning phone call from my friend Mick Smith, then defence correspondent of The Daily Telegraph. Dr Kelly had gone missing, and the police were looking for a body.
Even then, I couldn’t really believe that he had died. Surely it was some sort of misunderstanding? Perhaps he’d just decided to go off for a few days and would turn up in some hotel, à la Stephen Fry? As soon as I got to the BBC, the director of news, Richard Sambrook, called me to his office. While I had been on the way in, he said, not sounding like he believed it himself, Dr Kelly’s body had been found, and it looked like suicide. He’d taken painkilling tablets and slashed one of his wrists.
If Sambrook sounded shaken, it was nothing to how I sounded. He had to get me a glass of water to calm me down. But as well as being upset, I was very, very surprised. I hadn’t known David all that well, but he didn’t strike me as the suicidal type, if there is such a thing.
He was quite used to confrontation and pressure: he’d been a weapons inspector in Iraq, for goodness’ sake. I thought his famous grilling by the Foreign Affairs Committee had been distasteful, and symptomatic of the committee’s stupidity, but it hadn’t been that bad. And the affair was tailing off. Politics was breaking for the summer, both the BBC and I had refused to confirm or deny whether David was my source, and the battle between us and Downing Street had essentially reached stalemate.
What a lot I didn’t know. Even now, almost precisely 10 years since David Kelly’s last journey, we are still learning just how extraordinary and inexcusable the behaviour of our rulers was – both towards him, and in the wider cause, defending the Iraq war, for which he was outed and died. On July 18 2003, I did not consider myself a shockable person; I was an experienced, sceptical journalist with, I thought, a realistic idea of how politicians, intelligence officers and civil servants behaved. But over the months and years that followed, my views, and those of most of the country, changed. To borrow the famous words of David Astor over Suez, we had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.
You probably remember Dr Kelly’s main contention, which became the centrepiece of my BBC story – that a government dossier making the case against Iraq had been “transformed” at the behest of Downing Street and Alastair Campbell “to make it sexier”, with the “classic example” being the insertion in the final week of a claim, based on a single source, that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could be deployed within 45 minutes. The intelligence services were unhappy about the 45-minute claim, David said. They believed it was unreliable. In the first of my 18 broadcasts on the story, I added a claim, mistakenly attributing it to David, that the Government probably knew the 45-minute claim was wrong.
What we now know is that at precisely the same moment as the Government was launching hysterical attacks on the BBC and on me for reporting this, Whitehall had quietly conceded that it was true. In July 2003, literally as David Kelly was outed, MI6 secretly withdrew the 45-minute intelligence as unreliable and badly-sourced.
What we now know is that according to Major General Michael Laurie, the head of the Defence Intelligence Staff at the time of the dossier, “we could find no evidence of planes, missiles or equipment that related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It was clear to me that pressure was being applied to the Joint Intelligence Committee and its drafters. Every fact was managed to make the dossier as strong as possible. The final statements in the dossier reached beyond the conclusions intelligence assessments would normally draw from such facts.”
What we now know is that, according to an MI6 officer working on the dossier, the 45-minute claim was “based in part on wishful thinking” and was not “fully validated”. Another MI6 officer said that “there were from the outset concerns” in the intelligence services about “the extent to which the intelligence could support some of the judgments that were being made”.
What we now know is that on September 17 and 18 2002, a week before the dossier was published, Alastair Campbell sent memos to its author, Sir John Scarlett, saying that he and Tony Blair were “worried” that on Saddam’s nuclear capability the dossier gave the (accurate) impression that “there’s nothing much to worry about”. On September 19, Campbell emailed Scarlett again, suggesting the insertion of a totally false claim that, in certain circumstances, Saddam could produce nuclear weapons in as little as a year. This fabrication duly appeared in the dossier.
What we now know is that in his September 17 memo, Campbell suggested 15 other changes to the text of the dossier. Most were accepted; their effect was to harden the document’s language from possibility to probability, or probability to certainty. Campbell lied to Parliament about the content of this memo, giving the Foreign Affairs Committee an altered copy which omitted his comments on the 45-minute claim and played down his interventions on most of the other issues.
And what we now know is that, contrary to his campaigning certainty at the time, Blair admits in his memoirs that he privately saw the case for war against Iraq as “finely balanced”. No wonder a little tipping of the scales was needed – or, as Blair also put it in his book, “politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand that it be done”.
We knew nothing of this then. Indeed, in his evidence to the Hutton inquiry, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, described the 45-minute claim, straight-faced, as “a piece of well-sourced intelligence”, two months after his own service had discredited it. Despite his key role as Dearlove’s military counterpart, General Laurie was never called to Hutton at all; his explosive statement, and that of the two MI6 people, emerged only in 2011, at the Chilcot inquiry.
I don’t blame you if you knew nothing of all this until now; most of it, by happy coincidence, came out only long after public attention had moved on, and the government could no longer be damaged.
But the government knew – and this is what makes its behaviour towards the BBC and David Kelly so incredible. He came forward to his bosses as my source under a promise that his identity would be kept secret, but was effectively given up to the world after Campbell, in his words, decided to “open a flank on the BBC” to distract attention from his difficulties over the dossier.
Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the FAC, was inquiring into the dossier. After it failed to denounce me to Campbell’s satisfaction, he confided to his diary that “the biggest thing needed was the source out”. That afternoon, on Downing Street’s orders, Ministry of Defence press officers announced that a source had come forward, handed out clues allowing anyone with Google to guess who he was, then kindly confirmed it to any reporter who guessed right. One newspaper was allowed to put more than 20 names to the MoD before it got to Dr Kelly’s.
Once outed, Dr Kelly was openly belittled by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw. The FAC, by the way, didn’t want to question him – its inquiry had finished and its report had already been published – but Downing Street forced it to hold a special hearing anyway. The day before, for several hours, he was intensively coached in the need to “f---” me. Under great pressure, he blurted an untruth in the glare of the TV lights; an untruth which, on the morning of his death, his bosses told him they would investigate.
Dr Kelly defined himself by his work and his reputation for integrity. The fear of losing it must have been terrifying, even if it was almost certainly unfounded. Understanding that is one reason why I am certain that he did indeed kill himself, for all some people’s obsession to the contrary.
They’ll hate this comparison, but there’s an odd symmetry between the Kelly conspiracy theorists and Mr Blair. In both cases, their convictions seem to require them to fit the facts into unusual shapes. For Dr Kelly to have been murdered, as the pathologist’s report makes clear, it would have needed someone to force 29 pills down his throat, making him swallow them without protest. Then they would have had to get him to sit on the ground without any restraint, making no attempt to defend himself, while they had sawn away at his wrist with a knife. That knife, by the way, came from the desk drawer in Dr Kelly’s study, so they’d also have had to burgle his house to get it.
The even more telling question, though, is what motive anyone could have had for murder. Even if you believe the British government goes round bumping off its employees in cold blood, killing David Kelly would simply not have been in its interest. It was guaranteed to create a scandal and a crisis, as anyone with an iota of sense would have known. There’s no need to claim that David Kelly was murdered; his suicide is scandal enough.
Ten years on, there are some Groundhog Day elements. Over successive crises, the BBC’s management has been as incompetent as ever. Politicians still appear to think that set-piece inquiries are worth the paper they’re written on – despite the evidence from Lord Hutton’s and Sir John Chilcot’s efforts on Iraq, the latter entering its fifth year with few signs of a report.
Whatever Chilcot may eventually say, the debate on the war appears to have been decided. Few would now dispute the dossier was sexed up. But there is still a fascinating degree of dispute about David Kelly. I have sometimes asked myself why the self-inflicted death of one scientist should matter to us as much as, if not more than, the violent deaths of perhaps 120,000 Iraqis (535 of them this month alone, by the way – so much for making Iraq safe for democracy).
I think it’s partly because there may still be some excuses for what the Government did in Iraq. They expected it to be like Kosovo: the operation would succeed, the troops be welcomed and the predictions of doom confounded. They expected, too, that a few barrels of WMD would probably be found that could have been cast as a threat. Even the charge of “lying” about those weapons is not quite cast-iron: I prefer the charge I made, of sexing-up, or exaggeration. I and most others always thought Iraq had something in the WMD line; the exaggeration lay in the fact that it was nowhere near threatening enough to justify a war.
But there are no excuses for what the government did to the BBC and to Dr Kelly. He was outed to further a series of denials which we can, quite plainly, call lies. An explanation, if not an excuse, may rest in Campbell’s mental state: even Blair, in his memoirs, called him a “crazy person” who by that stage “had probably gone over the edge”. But that doesn’t explain the really scary part: how the machinery of government, in a mature democracy such as Britain’s, allowed itself to be captured by someone in that state.
Sir Richard Dearlove, the former MI6 chief responsible for the dossier, was once asked what he thought of me. Flatteringly, he said: “I wouldn’t want you to print my views on Andrew Gilligan.” My own views on Sir Richard, Sir John Scarlett and the other distinguished knights of Iraq who got too close to New Labour are perfectly printable: they failed catastrophically in their duty, bringing their professions, their services – and their country – into deep, possibly permanent, disrepute.