Far from the ravages of war, in a peaceful Oxfordshire copse, an English biologist kills himself. Suicides are usually mysterious and tragic. But there is a strangely sinister quality about the death of David Kelly that might compel one to think of Le Carré at his darkest. It is very clear that very big things are at stake in the circumstances surrounding his death. To inquire into these circumstances, “mostly in public”, is what the British government wants its specially appointed lawyer, Lord Hutton, to do. But this is a situation created out of a series of interconnected leaks. Finding out who said what to whom and why could therefore unravel a network of secrecy and accountability, honoured as well as betrayed, which might open out this quiet death to momentous revelations — or to nothing at all. Oddly, it is the second possibility which seems more sinister.
Kelly was the defence ministry’s scientific officer and senior adviser (on proliferation and arms control) to the secretariat and foreign office. As a weapons inspector, his insights into the Russia of the Eighties and Iraq of the Nineties had been invaluable to the United Nations. This is the man who spoke to the BBC of his fears about how intelligence was being used by a government “desperate for information” that would persuade the public about the rightness of going to war. The BBC is now ready to submit a tape of its conversations with him to Lord Hutton. But its good faith in safeguarding Kelly’s confidence is somewhat undermined by trying to pass him off as a senior intelligence man, which he most certainly was not. There seems to have been here a sexing up of the sexing up. But what was most dishonourable, even a bit sordid, is the elaborate game played by Downing Street and the defence ministry around the disclosure of his identity to the public. The prime minister may have angrily denied authorizing the giving out of Kelly’s name, but Whitehall and Downing Street did keep up a slow and ingenious release of clues to some journalists regarding his identity, while continually claiming that anonymity was being maintained. There was even the bizarre option given to the media that they could guess his name from the hints dropped to them — and if they were right, it would be confirmed.
It is this controlled, but covert, release of official information which is intriguing, and therefore sinister. And not least because Kelly killed himself at the end of all this. Perhaps this deflects public attention from the big questions: why and how intelligence was used to justify a controversial war, and how Mr Tony Blair’s case came to be challenged. But there is also a host of lesser questions — for instance, Kelly’s treatment by his defence bosses after his confession — which would haunt any inquirer trying to imagine or investigate the “circumstances” of his death. A Labour MP has called Kelly “the fall guy”. But in this obscure game of information bled out, hinted at or dressed up, it is perhaps just as well — but for whom' — that the dead do not speak.