| British defence secretary Geoff Hoon. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 14 (Reuters): Britain’s defence secretary rejected advice that he shield Iraq weapons expert David Kelly from a hostile public grilling just days before he committed suicide, an inquiry into his death revealed today.
Prime Minister Tony Blair also became personally involved in discussions about how to deal with the scientist, as suspicion grew that Kelly was the source of a BBC report accusing Blair of exaggerating Iraq’s weapons threat.
The revelations will pile more pressure on the government and defence secretary Geoff Hoon in particular. He has yet to answer tough questions over how the quiet scientist was thrust into the public glare.
The inquiry under judge Lord Hutton is also a key test for Blair. His public trust ratings have plunged over the failure to find banned weapons in Iraq and the handling of Kelly’s death.
The threat from biological and chemical weapons was the main reason London gave for waging a war most Britons opposed. A memorandum put before the inquiry showed the ministry of defence’s top civil servant recommended Hoon “resist” a request from parliament’s foreign affairs committee for Kelly to appear.
He said Kelly was “not used to being thrown into the public eye” and was not on trial.
Hoon’s office said it would be difficult to shield Kelly. “The defence secretary has therefore concluded ... we should agree to the Committee’s request,” it said. Kelly, looking deeply uncomfortable in the public spotlight, appeared before the committee on July 15.
“He was clearly very nervous about that,” Patrick Lamb, a government colleague of Kelly’s told the inquiry. Two days later Kelly slashed his wrist in a quiet woodland site near his home.
Blair and Hoon will both testify to Hutton. Their furious denial of BBC claims that Blair’s media chief Alastair Campbell “sexed up” a pre-war dossier on Iraq’s weapons led to Kelly being thrust into the limelight.
Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector, said he did not recognise himself as being the main source of the BBC report. But after his suicide, the public broadcaster confirmed he was indeed the source.
Prior to testifying in public, the mild-mannered scientist told his superiors he had spoken to BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan. He was grilled twice in four days by senior officials. It was at that point that Blair got involved.
A letter shown to the inquiry, from one senior official to another, “recorded the Prime Minister’s view that before we decided on what next steps should be taken, it would be sensible to try and go into a bit more detail into the differences between what Kelly said and what Gilligan had claimed”.
Blair's top aides, including Campbell, were also warned by an undisclosed source that Kelly could rubbish a key assertion the government had made about Iraq’s weapons capability.