On David and Tom Kelly

There can’t be any excuse for failing to start with a word or three about the two unfortunate Kellys, the late Dr David, expert on chemical and biological weapons and Tom, the Downing Street spokesperson forced to grovel for having speculated, in what he thought was a "private conversation" with a journalist, that David Kelly might have been a Walter Mitty character — i.e. a fantasist (although as some of the brighter columnists have pointed out, the point about Thurber’s wonderful creation, Mitty, was that he was an unimportant, obscure nobody fantasising about being a Somebody, whereas the point about David Kelly is that he was a genuine Somebody who didn’t need to fantasise about it).  It’s probably reckless to speculate about the truth of the Kelly saga in advance of the findings of Lord Hutton’s enquiry, but the scenario which seems to me the least implausible of many runs something like this.  

Kelly (and from now on that means Dr. David unless otherwise identified) was a top expert in a somewhat narrow field, but with his hands-on experience of weapons-inspecting in Iraq and his technical knowledge of specific kinds of WMD (chemical and biological), he was clearly entitled to an opinion worth hearing on the government’s case for justifying the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  There seems however to be some doubt about the extent of his involvement in the drafting, editing and final production of the government’s dossier, later nicknamed the ‘dodgy dossier’ (because it made unattributed use of material from an academic thesis on the Web).  Kelly seems to have written a historical section of the dossier and perhaps to have contributed other sections on chemical and biological weapons, but how far he was involved in editing sessions at which the No. 10 staff and the intelligence agencies exchanged views on what was to go into the final version remains obscure, at any rate to me.  It seems more likely than not that Kelly did complain in unattributable and unauthorised briefings of Gilligan and at least two other journalists that No. 10, and perhaps Alastair Campbell himself, had embroidered the material supplied by the intelligence agencies, or had changed its emphasis or interpretation in ways that had made the intelligence fraternity unhappy.  Possibly Gilligan had further embroidered what Kelly had said to him, or put an unwarranted interpretation on it: that we shall probably never know.  But the essence of his account seems likely to have been reasonably faithful to what Kelly had said.  In the subsequent hullabaloo, Kelly (probably unwisely) volunteered an admission to the MOD that he had briefed Gilligan and perhaps the other journalists, although he claimed not to have said what Gilligan had quoted his source as saying.  The MOD and/or No. 10 saw an opportunity to discredit Gilligan’s story by letting it be publicly known that Kelly had been Gilligan’s source but that Kelly denied having said what Gilligan had alleged in his articles.  The BBC refused to confirm Kelly’s identity as Gilligan’s source (following the indispensable tradition of not naming a source of information provided in confidence), so the MOD arranged to ‘out’ Kelly as the source by means of a juvenile game in which they provided the media with enough information about the source to enable Kelly to be rapidly identified, and then confirmed the identification.   

At the same time the MOD threatened Kelly, certainly publicly and presumably also privately, with dismissal from his job (and therefore the withdrawal of the plan to send him back to Iraq to join in the US-UK hunt for the WMD) and possibly even the cancellation of his pension rights if it turned out that he had indeed made the allegations to Gilligan which Gilligan had reported, and Kelly was denying.  This placed Kelly in an agonising dilemma: with a wife and children to support, and only a year to go before his date for retirement at 60, he couldn’t afford to sacrifice his job and pension by admitting that Gilligan’s account had been broadly accurate; yet as a man of universally acknowledged integrity and principle, he must have hated having to deny having said what he had (probably) actually said to Gilligan, and in somewhat less stark terms to the other two reporters also.  Summoned by the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, he faced a rackety and often hostile-seeming interrogation in which he was effectively forced into denying that he had been the source of Gilligan’s story, with the knowledge that the saga was certain to co0ntue to run into the indefinite future and that the truth would eventually come out.  Cutting his wrists must have seemed the only way out.

Of course much of this is pure guess-work.  Perhaps Hutton will be able to unravel the various mysteries in a definitive way.  Did Kelly really speak to Gilligan in the way asserted by Gilligan but later denied by Kelly?  If so, was Kelly in a position to know that his allegations against No. 10 were well founded, or was his own source (if any) questionable, self-interested, or in a position to know the facts?  If Kelly did not make the allegations attributed to him by Gilligan, what was the motive for his (Kelly’s) subsequent suicide, assuming as one must that his death was indeed suicide?  Alas, with the principal witness dead, it seems quite possible that we shall never know for sure what are the answers to these and other questions.  Hutton has an unenviable task:  but with his experience of presiding over non-jury trials in Northern Ireland, he has plenty of experience of unenviable tasks.