A probe of sorts

Print edition : September 26, 2003

It is widely believed that the Hutton inquiry is designed to let the Tony Blair government off the hook, as its brief is restricted to the circumstances surrounding the death of scientist David Kelly, the BBC's source for its report on the government's intelligence dossier on Iraq.

in London

SINCE the Hutton inquiry into the weapons scientist David Kelly's death opened four weeks ago, Room No 73 in London's Royal Courts of Justice has become the setting for arguably the most gripping politico-legal theatre the United Kingdom has witnessed in recent memory. It has been a star-studded show with a line-up that included Prime Minister Tony Blair, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, Chief of Intelligence John Scarlett, Chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation Gavyn Davies, three of Blair's most senior aides including his controversial communications chief Alastair Campbell, a procession of high-profile civil servants, and the two BBC journalists - Andrew Gilligan and Susan Watts - to whom Kelly spoke inadvertently triggering a chain of events that claimed his own life.

Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice to give evidence to the Hutton inquiry on August 28.-ODD ANDERSEN/ REUTERS/POOL

Hundreds of documents - email, internal memos, tapes - have been submitted to the inquiry which has put them up on its website, providing a rare glimpse into the working of a modern government. Yet, after four weeks of examination of witnesses and documents the picture is barely clearer than it was at the start of the inquiry. If anything, the sheer volume of information in the public domain has increased the confusion and there is a danger that in the end the main issue might be lost in the minutiae of who said what to whom. There is simply too much detail which, though interesting as an example of what goes on behind the scenes in the corridors of power, does not add up to the big picture.

On tougher issues such as those relating to responsibility for key decisions relating to Kelly, the inquiry has been treated with a string of po-faced denials, contradictions, attempts to pass the buck, obfuscations and some brazen stonewalling. There has been only one moment of clarity - when Blair said he took full responsibility for naming Kelly as the BBC's source for its damaging report on the government's intelligence dossier on Iraq, but that too was clouded by subsequent qualifications.

The most breathtaking performance came from Hoon who simply washed his hands off the whole affair and pointed the finger either at Downing Street or at his officials. And yet it was his department which was involved in "outing" Kelly as the BBC "mole" and exposing him to a grilling by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) on his interaction with journalists, particularly the BBC.

While Hoon has been the butt of much ridicule in the media for feigning ignorance about what was going on in his own department, it has not gone unnoticed that in the process he has put his finger on a vital aspect of the Blair administration - its presidential style of functioning. Hoon's department may have been involved in the decisions that were to prove fatal for Kelly but they were simply actions of a puppet whose strings were being pulled by Downing Street. It was Blair and his close advisers, especially Campbell, who laid down the law for Hoon and his officials. In a sense, Hoon's testimony was a classic case of the empire striking back.

From the government's point of view the most damaging evidence came, not surprisingly, from Kelly's widow Janice. Speaking for the first time in public since her husband's death, Janice pulled no punches as she spoke of the pressure on Kelly in the days before the tragedy. Without directly pointing a finger at anyone, she let it be known that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had much to account for in the way it treated Kelly in its obsession with disclosing the BBC's source.

Janice said that Kelly felt "totally let down and betrayed" by his employers when they released his name to the media after apparently assuring him that it would be kept confidential. And the last straw was the MoD's decision to send him before the FAC. According to Janice, he went "ballistic" when he was told to appear before its televised hearings and, afterwards, he apparently said he was "treated like a fly".

Janice Kelly (left), widow of David Kelly, followed by daughter Rachel, arrives at the High Court on September 1.-DAN CHUNG/ AFP

The disclosure of his name was the start of a "nightmare" from which he never recovered. His mood darkened and he became "difficult to talk to" as the strain of having to cope with media frenzy began to tell on him. Suddenly, he "seemed to have aged quite a bit". "I had never known him to be so unhappy," she told the inquiry.

Janice Kelly's was, by far, the most emotional and pointed intervention amid a welter of self-righteous statements the inquiry has heard in recent weeks, and its import could not have been lost on Lord Brian Hutton.

But rather than expand more on individual witnesses, it is important to look at the nature of the Hutton inquiry. The main problem is its deliberately disingenuous remit. The inquiry is restricted to the circumstances surrounding the death of Kelly, but is it really possible to separate his apparent suicide on July 17 from the wider issue - whether the government manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq and plunged the country into a war on a false pretext?

THE sequence of events that culminated in Kelly's death started with a BBC radio broadcast on May 29 by its defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan, quoting an unnamed British "official" as saying that the government's dossier on Iraq's weapons capability, published in September 2002, had been "sexed up" and that there was unease in the intelligence community over the inclusion of the claim that Iraq could deploy its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. This provoked a row between Downing Street and the BBC over the authenticity of the report as well as its source, triggering a hunt for the unnamed "official". Eventually, Kelly was identified as the BBC's source and it was decided to release his name to the media and make him appear before the FAC. Two days after his tense appearance before the FAC, Kelly disappeared from his home in Oxfordshire, and a day later his body was found in the nearby woods.

It is obvious that the "circumstances" surrounding his death flowed directly from the issues relating to the Iraq war, and the rest - the process of identifying him as the BBC's source and throwing him to the "wolves" - was merely a chain reaction. Had he not questioned the way the government had portrayed the threat from Iraq, there would have been no row with the BBC, no hunt for a "mole" and no pressure on Kelly to explain his conduct. Yet, it is the chain reaction, rather than its cause, which is the subject of the inquiry.

No wonder, Lord Hutton is walking a tightrope. Although it goes to his credit that he has not allowed his limited remit to ignore the wider issue altogether, the fact remains that when he delivers his verdict it would deal with the procedural aspects of the Kelly affair - and not the root cause.

Many see the inquiry as an attempt by the government to divert attention from the real issue: the way intelligence was tailored to meet political ends. Former Tory Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine spoke for many when he said that in "historic terms" the present inquiry was "really trivial exposure of who said what and who sent emails to whoever". "The real issue is the historic issue. British troops are dying in Iraq because we were told there were weapons of mass destruction that could be imminently deployed," he said calling for a judicial inquiry into why Britain joined the invasion of Iraq.

The apparent irrelevance of the inquiry was dramatically highlighted by The Independent, which led with the latest British casualty in Iraq, the day every other newspaper headlined Blair's appearance before the inquiry. Under the heading, "Captain David Jones 1974-2003" and a picture of the soldier's coffin, it said: "Yesterday, they buried Capt Jones... . For them, the appearance 150 miles away of Tony Blair at the Hutton inquiry must have seemed an irrelevance." Below, the photograph of a smiling Blair accompanied a report on his evidence before the inquiry.

LORD HUTTON is a senior and widely respected law lord and the way he and his businesslike counsel, James Dingemans QC, have handled the proceedings has won them great admiration; but their hands are tied by the limited scope of the inquiry's terms of reference. Few expect any substantive outcome from the probe which, according to a senior academic, has generated "a lot of hot air and boredom" causing "bewilderment" among the public. "Doubtless, the outcome will be some sort of cool-it verdict which, by criticising both parties on some points and exonerating them on others, gets the government off the hook," Professor Ben Pimlott of Goldsmith College told The Guardian in a survey on the Hutton inquiry.

David Starkey, historian, sympathised with "poor Lord Hutton", saying that given the nature of the Blair regime he would find it impossible to fix responsibility. In remarks echoing the widespread scepticism on the issue, he said: "It's extremely difficult to see where the blame (for the Kelly tragedy) lies, for the simple reason that because this (Blair government) is a court you get vertical lines of responsibility cut across by horizontal lines. So, you get the Secretary of State for Defence being instructed, more or less, by senior people in Downing Street, and the Permanent Secretary in the MoD being instructed by the private secretary to the Minister that the Minister need not know much about it... ."

There is also the cynical view that Blair would not have appointed an inquiry if he had the slightest doubt that it might boomerang on him or his office. Away from the media hype, the more considered perception is that what is happening in the Royal Courts of Justice is nothing more than political "theatre" shrouded in "lawyerly" abstractions - impressive to watch but lacking in substance. More to the point, it has been likened to a cricket match which, from the very start, looks headed for a "tame draw" because that is the only result the pitch is designed to produce. In this case, it is the inquiry's brief that is guaranteed not to throw up any surprises.

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