Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
Instead of focussing so much on possible causes of his loss of life, campaigners for a full inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly should be concentrating their attention on trying to establish exactly what happened before his final, fatal walk in the Oxfordshire countryside. Fresh light has been cast on the events that morning in July 2003 and it does suggests the Hutton Inquiry skated over the timeline of precisely who said what and to whom in the hours before the Iraq weapons inspector left home. Lord Hutton’s suicide verdict at the conclusion of his year-long inquiry drew heavily on witness statements about the stress Kelly was under and in the event the judge’s only substantive criticism of the Labour government was for failing in its duty of care towards Kelly in the days before his death. Hutton’s finding did not attract the attention it merited given the furore at the time over the judge’s exoneration of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and his condemnation of the BBC for having broadcast Andrew Gilligan’s report about how Downing Street had ‘sexed up’ its dossier on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. But Hutton’s conclusion that the government was at fault for not doing enough to offer Kelly support and protection once the Ministry of Defence was authorised to ‘out’ him does raise questions which have remained unanswered. My own investigations suggest there was a telephone conversation with at least one of Kelly’s superiors which was not mentioned at the inquiry.  Details of another unaccounted telephone call have also emerged in recent weeks: both Gilligan and the former Panorama reporter Tom Mangold believe there were  conversations which were not revealed during the inquiry and which in their view led Kelly to conclude he had no hope of regaining the trust and confidence of his colleagues. These revelations do seem to suggest that there are missing pieces from the jigsaw of calls and emails which took place on his final morning as Kelly struggled to comply with repeated requests from the Ministry of Defence to identify and list all the journalists with whom he had been in contact. My own inquiries suggest Kelly spoke directly that morning to one of the highest civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and made a personal plea for support.  But instead of being offered help, he was told to continue with the task of supplying a more detailed record of the journalists he had been in touch with. I heard a version of the events that morning which was far more explicit than anything revealed so far: ‘Kelly’s superiors at the Ministry of Defence knew full well that he was floundering...some of the civil servants who had ultimate responsibility for him did not seem concerned that he might possibly be suicidal...in effect he was being left to hang out to dry...and perhaps it was just too convenient for everyone, for Kelly, for the government and the civil service, that he topped himself’. Lord Hutton did try to establish whether there were any indications that suicide was the likely outcome but he concluded that ‘no-one, including officials in the Ministry of Defence could have contemplated that Dr Kelly might take his own life’. But Hutton also qualified his own conclusion by making it abundantly clear that he acknowledged Kelly was ‘under great stress’ and was ‘not an easy man to help or to whom to give advice’. Also highlighted in the inquiry’s report was Janice Kelly’s evidence that she was ‘physically sick’ because her husband looked ‘so desperate’; he had been ‘on the phone quite a bit’ that morning and he appeared distracted and dejected. ‘I just thought he had a broken heart. He had shrunk into himself’. Calls continued from time to time after lunch and in the last which Kelly answered – at 2.53pm – he was told that his contact with the BBC’s Newsnight correspondent Susan Watts had been re-assessed.  Kelly had appeared shaken when questioned by MPs about Newsnight’s coverage.  He said he didn’t recognise the words which Watts had used to describe doubts about the accuracy of the government dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction; he denied being the source. Andrew Gilligan says he continues to believe that Kelly took his own life.  After learning ‘quite how badly’ he had been treated by the Ministry of Defence, Gilligan said it was easier to understand the suicide verdict:‘David was placed under great pressure by senior government figures.  He was intensively interviewed, forced into televised interrogation, coached in what to say, and then found himself caught in an untruth amid a blaze of publicity – an untruth which, on the morning of his death, his bosses told him they would investigate’. (Daily Telegraph, 16.8.2010) Gilligan subsequently reinforced his point that Mrs Kelly believed her husband had been betrayed by the MOD: ‘In several hours of testimony to Hutton, his family made it quite clear who he and they blamed for his plight – and it wasn’t me or the BBC’.  (Observer, 29.8.2010)  Tom Mangold shares Gilligan’s conviction that Kelly killed himself after he ‘suddenly became withdrawn, silent and thoughtful’ that final morning.  ‘So what was the tipping point? Ironically, Andrew Gilligan appears to have the answer...Kelly had been caught out in an untruth “which, on the morning of his death, his bosses told him they would investigate”.  This is news.  If Gilligan is right, and I believe he is, then what changed Kelly’s demeanour was a message that he can only have received over the telephone. ‘I believe that message could have been that the Susan Watts affair would shortly reveal him to have lied because the BBC had a tape recording of his conversation with Susan Watts.  If this message was passed to him – clearly not with malign intent – by someone in the MoD, it could have been what led to his suicide’.  (Independent on Sunday, 22.8.2010) My own conclusion after researching the lives of other prominent leakers of secret information was that Kelly was adept at taking selected journalists into his confidence. Having established himself as Britain’s foremost authority on biological warfare, he was authorised – and encouraged – to brief journalists on technical matters relating to weapons of mass destruction and their use by states such as Iraq.  On occasion he would break off conversations at social engagements simply in order to take a reporter’s call and, by all accounts, he took a close interest in any news reports which were subsequently published or broadcast. I concluded that in many ways his profile fitted those who leak information in the belief they are serving the public interest, which in Kelly’s case appeared to be a desire to encourage an informed discussion about the action which he believed was needed to curb the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. Kelly’s motives for exceeding civil service guidelines and going beyond the strict limits on what he could say, and for talking freely to Andrew Gilligan, were not probed to any great degree during the course of the inquiry. But defence and intelligence chiefs told Lord Hutton that the transcripts of shorthand notes and a tape recorded by Susan Watts provided the proof that Kelly had indeed mentioned that the controversial 45-minute warning had been seized upon by Alastair Campbell and that Kelly thought the government was wrong to have included it in the dossier.  The inquiry heard that if his superiors had known the true extent of the information he was imparting to journalists it would have been ‘a serious breach of discipline’ and they would have been ‘forced to suspend’ him. Few now doubt the accuracy of the concerns which Kelly expressed in his various conversations with three BBC correspondents – Andrew Gilligan, Susan Watts and Gavin Hewitt.  As the transcripts and notes indicated, he believed that the intelligence used in the Iraq dossier was flawed and that the war was being fought on a false prospectus. But the hindsight of today and the widespread subsequent respect for the stand which Kelly made in briefing the news media were of no help to him in his hour of need.   I am convinced he was acting in the public interest and that by any objective test of journalistic sources, he was a much-prized contact, well placed strategically and by far the most reliable and confidential informant the BBC could ever have hoped for when it came to the difficult task of trying to disentangle the mixture of claim and counter-claim surrounding Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.  If ever there was a ‘deep throat’ who needed to be nurtured and protected it was Kelly and if the three BBC journalists had pooled their information it might have been possible, through their co-operation, to have done much more to safeguard his identity.                                                                                                                                                           Campaigners clamouring for a full inquest into his death are in danger of encouraging bizarre conspiracy theories which only divert attention from the share of the blame which should be shouldered by Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell. The recent claims that there was no evidence Kelly was depressed or had ever indicated an ‘intent to die’ take no account of his desolation in the hours before his death and the sense of betrayal which he expressed to his wife over the lack of support from his superiors.  Neither the former Prime Minister nor his director of communications were singled out by Hutton in his conclusions about the government’s failure ‘to take proper steps to help and protect Kelly’, but there is no mistaking their personal responsibility:  Blair’s ‘duty of care’ as ‘Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service’ was self evident; and it was Campbell who instigated the eventual decision to allow the Ministry of Defence to confirm Kelly’s name to journalists. Nicholas Hunt, the pathologist who performed the post mortem, stands by his original conclusion that Kelly’s death was a ‘classic case of self-inflicted injury’ and he has re-iterated his support for the suicide verdict reached by Hutton. Hunt has also recalled how at the time he was ‘horrified’ by the way Kelly had been treated by the government. (Sunday Times, 22.8.2010) Hunt’s certainty mirrored that of Professor Keith Hawton, professor of psychiatry at Oxford University, who said in his evidence to the inquiry that he was convinced Kelly took his own life because of the ‘severe loss of self esteem’ once his identity as Gilligan’s source was exposed by the media.  Kelly would have felt ‘publicly disgraced...a profound sense of hopelessness...and that his life’s work...had been totally undermined’. My own investigations into the phenomenon of leaking and interviews with individuals who have in the past supplied secret and confidential information to journalists would suggest that Kelly’s unmasking would have been a traumatic moment, not least because of a loss of trust among colleagues and friends. If the Attorney General Dominic Grieve does authorise a full inquest Lord Hutton’s criticism of the government for failing in its duty of care to Kelly should be the starting point for any re-opened hearing into the cause of his death. Nicholas Jones is the author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs, Politico’s, 2006.