| Tony Blair
|An anti-war protester awaits the arrival of defence secretary Geoff Hoon at the royal courts of justice in London. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 27: A fateful decision to thrust Britain’s top Iraq weapons expert into the limelight days before he killed himself was taken with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s approval, according to defence secretary Geoff Hoon.
Hoon — whose job is on the line for his role in the worst crisis of Blair’s six-year premiership — said today that to avoid allegations of a cover-up, he overruled advice to shield the respected scientist from the spotlight.
Widely seen as a potential government “fall guy”, Hoon is the most senior official to take the stand at the inquiry into the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly. Blair is due to testify tomorrow.
Hoon told the inquiry he believed that shielding Kelly from the limelight was not an option after the scientist admitted briefing a BBC reporter who had accused the government of “sexing up” a dossier on Iraqi weapons.
“I was certainly aware that the prime minister took essentially the same view that I did,” he told the inquiry, citing a message from Blair's chief of staff.
“I accept ultimately this was my decision,” he added. “I am not in any way trying to avoid that.”
The quietly spoken scientist was grilled by a parliamentary committee on July 15 over his unauthorised meeting with a BBC journalist. Two days after the occasionally hostile questioning, Kelly slashed his wrist at a beauty spot near his home.
Kelly’s death, and the failure after the war to find any weapons of mass destruction to back up warnings in the dossier, have sent Blair’s trust ratings plummeting.
A poll in the Sunday Telegraph showed 67 per cent of those questioned thought his government had deceived the public. The inquiry has raised particularly awkward questions for Hoon, leading some commentators to suggest he could become its most high-profile casualty.
Hoon overruled advice from his most senior civil servant to protect Kelly from the foreign affairs committee. Having approved the scientist’s appearance, he then contacted the committee chairman to curb the scope of questioning.
Blair’s government hoped that by putting Kelly forward it could undermine the BBC report. But ministers also feared that Kelly, a world expert on chemical and biological weapons, would cast doubt on a key claim in the dossier that Iraq could launch banned weapons at just 45 minutes’ notice.
Hoon said he did not realise the man he had met in April was Kelly until after his death was reported. He was with his private secretary when he was approached by an official. Hoon said: “I did not know who it was. We talked about Iraq, we discussed the government’s policy which the official said he supported. It was not an official occasion at all.
“It was the sort of event I had routinely with the people in the ministry of defence. I did not know it was Kelly then. I think I only knew it was Kelly when after his death one of his daughters reminded me of this occasion and reminded me it was Kelly.”
Hoon had been greeted by two groups of protesters as he arrived to give evidence to the Hutton inquiry. One anti-war and one calling for greater support for asylum seekers, stood at either end of a pen designed to contain up to 200 demonstrators.
Blair’s top intelligence adviser John Scarlett stepped out of the shadows this week to defend the dossier and reject claims that the government inflated intelligence on Baghdad’s weapons.
But the inquiry has shown that a series of Blair aides pushed for the dossier to be hardened up in the days before its publication.