The David Kelly mystery

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 55, July 2008, pp. 14-15

Reviewed by Brian Martin

David Kelly was Britain's foremost weapons inspector, with special expertise on chemical and biological weapons. He had inspected facilities in several countries, including Iraq. He worked for the Ministry of Defence.

In March 2003, US military forces invaded Iraq without UN endorsement. The UK government was the principal partner in this operation, committing significant numbers of troops, whereas other governments, such as Australia's, provided only token assistance. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in defiance of many of his New Labour Party colleagues, gave eloquent support for the invasion.

The primary public justification for the invasion was Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In the lead-up to the invasion, Blair backed his position with a dossier on Saddam's WMDs, including the striking claim that Iraqi biological and chemical weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes.

In this context, Kelly's expertise was highly relevant. In the aftermath of the invasion, a desperate search revealed no WMDs nor even any evidence of active programmes. This was highly embarrassing to Blair and other supporters of the invasion.

In May, Kelly spoke to BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan about WMDs. Kelly said that government figures had pushed to make the claims in the dossier stronger than what intelligence service officers preferred. In Gilligan's words, the dossier had been "sexed up," in other words exaggerated and distorted. Gilligan's broadcast report caused a storm of controversy. It seemed to provide proof that the government had manipulated intelligence information for political purposes.

Kelly had spoken anonymously. The government obtained his identity and revealed it to the media. Then he was called to give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in a televised hearing, where he was grilled for over an hour.

A few days later, Kelly was discovered dead in a field near his home with his wrist slit, an apparent suicide attributed to the stress of having his credibility savaged in public and his career jeopardised.

Blair immediately set up an inquiry under Lord Hutton, who focussed on the role of Gilligan and the BBC. Hutton's main target was the BBC, and the government used the inquiry findings to assail it.

Kelly was widely perceived to have been an innocent victim of high-level politicking. In many circles he has been lauded as a whistleblower. He might better be described as a scientist who regularly briefed the media - with official or tacit approval - and was honest about a politically sensitive topic. Kelly did not take a public stand, in contrast to Australia's intelligence expert Andrew Wilkie who went public with his disagreement with the government's stated reasons for going to war.

Kelly had regularly briefed journalists on weapons issues, with formal or tacit approval, so his exposure and grilling had all the marks of scapegoating. Whether or not Kelly was a whistleblower, he was treated like one.

From the beginning, some people had suspicions about Kelly's supposed suicide. His wrist was slit, but not in a way that would cause death. There were pain pill packets in his pocket, with only one of 30 pills remaining, suggesting that he had taken the remainder - but Kelly was known to detest taking pills. There were discrepancies in reports about how Kelly's body was found. There was no suicide note. Some of Kelly's friends said he had seemed in good spirits.

Had Kelly committed suicide or was he murdered? Conspiracy theories abounded on the Internet.

Norman Baker, a member of the Liberal Democrats, was elected to parliament in Britain in 1997. In 2006 he relinquished his frontbench position and, while remaining an MP, decided to use some of his spare time to investigate Kelly's death. The result of his efforts is a fascinating book, The Strange Death of David Kelly.

Baker covers the issues carefully and comprehensively. He delves into Kelly's personal background, the sequence of events just before Kelly died, the testimony on Kelly's death, the political context, the dossier, the Hutton inquiry, and a range of possible explanations for the death. Several chapters in the book are excellent primers on related issues, such as the British government's manipulation of the dossier and suspicious deaths of other weapons experts in Britain and elsewhere.

Baker's investigative skills are quite apparent. He also had the advantage of being an MP with high credibility, and the resources that came with it. He contacted police, Kelly's friends and colleagues, and a number of figures in the security services, in Britain and other countries. His high profile and an article he wrote about his interest in the case led to his receiving tips, including anonymous letters.

Baker offers convincing evidence that Kelly did not commit suicide but instead was murdered. But by whom, and why? Baker approaches these questions carefully and systematically. He examines a number of possibilities in terms of capability and rationale. For example, he assesses the role of US agencies, examining the enormous pressure exerted by war advocates around Bush to obtain intelligence agency support for claims about WMDs, the record of US covert assassinations, and possible rationales for wanting Kelly dead. Baker obtained independent comment from several operatives in US intelligence agencies. In their judgement, Kelly was murdered, but US agencies were not involved.

Baker is restrained and judicious in his prose. For example, he scrutinises the Hutton inquiry, finding that Hutton gave only cursory attention to Kelly's death - assuming it was suicide - and sloppily leaving all sorts of discrepancies and possible leads unexplored. He also gives a history of Hutton's prior assignments, noting that he had always slavishly supported the government line. Baker provides all the information needed for the reader to conclude that the Hutton inquiry was a sham.

The Strange Death of David Kelly is filled with facts and logical argument, telling an intriguing story. It is a model of balanced analysis. It shows that one skilled and dedicated investigator can accomplish far more than an expensive official inquiry. The story is as dramatic as any fictional murder mystery, so I leave Baker's conclusions for the reader to discover and assess.

Whistleblowers wanting someone to investigate their cases should wish to have someone like Norman Baker but, unlike David Kelly, be alive at the end of the story.

Norman Baker, The Strange Death of David Kelly, London, Methuen, 2007, 415 pages.

Brian Martin is Vice President of Whistleblowers Australia and editor of The Whistle.

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