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The UK's Iraq War inquiry vindicates a whistleblower who took his own life

Dr. David Kelly was found dead near his home in 2003. His life was torn apart after he accused the British government of over-selling intelligence in order to justify the Iraq invasion. Turns out, he was right.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Pallbearers carry the casket for Dr. David Kelly. (AP Photo/Tim Ockenden/Pool)

In July of 2003, four months after the fall of Baghdad, David Kelly walked a mile from his Oxfordshire home to a wooded area called Harrowdown Hill, and stabbed a pruning knife into his left wrist, severing a major artery. He was found dead the next morning.

On Wednesday, a long-anticipated report on the decisions that brought a 'coalition of the willing' to war in Iraq was released, and laid waste to the intelligence relied upon by the United Kingdom and the United States to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.


In doing so, the Iraq War Inquiry, led by Sir John Chilcot, offered vindication for Kelly — the scientist who first went to the media, highlighting that the claims made by the British government about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction were at best misleading and at worst lies.

Kelly, a biological warfare expert, had been provided a copy of a classified dossier, written by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and released in September of 2002. The report was to be released to the public in order to make the case for war in Iraq and, more importantly for then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to sway Parliament to approve the deployment of British troops.

Kelly testifying before a Parliamentary committee

"The document discloses that [Saddam's] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them," wrote Blair in the foreword to the JIC dossier.

Chilcot's inquiry sheds new light on how Kelly tried to blow the whistle from inside the British government, and how his warnings ultimately went unheeded.

The executive summary of the report damningly concludes what Kelly had said at the time: "The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein

had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons."

"Sexed up" intelligence

By May of 2003, the UK was already at war. The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly, 412 to 149, to approve the mission. The dossier, the faulty one bearing the prime minister's stamp of approval, had helped convince a host of American allies to send their troops to take part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

On the first Wednesday of the month, Kelly was meeting with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan at the Charing Cross Hotel in London. Gilligan, the next morning, went on the national broadcaster to allege that, in conversations with one source, the UK government "sexed up" the dossier in order to fabricate a case for war.


The allegation, spun out in a series of reports over the weeks that followed, was that Blair's office had directly involved itself in re-writing the JIC dossier in order to bolster evidence for war.

"The dossier is good and convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced."

Eventually an inquiry into Kelly's death was launched, and determined that the allegation that the intelligence got "sexed up" was, ultimately, "unfounded." It concluded that while Kelly had raised the alarm bell about the accuracy of the report, he had not accused 10 Downing Street of interfering with the intelligence itself. Gilligan ultimately confessed that he misattributed a quote to Kelly.

Nevertheless, the perception that Blair's office directly involved itself in the dossier persisted. But the Chilcot report debunked that claim.

"There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10

improperly influenced the text," reads the executive summary of the inquiry.

Writing in the Guardian on Wednesday, Alastair Campbell — who was director of communications for Blair when invasion took place — took Chilcot's report as vindication.

"The truth was – and remains, confirmed today – that the so-called sexing up of intelligence never happened…the BBC should have properly investigated our complaint rather than dismissed it out of hand because it came from Downing Street. Had they done so, David Kelly would almost certainly be alive today," Campbell wrote.


But as both inquiries concluded, neither the prime minister's office nor the English intelligence apparatus were blameless — either in the war, or in Kelly's death.

(Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via AP)


What Kelly told Gilligan in that hotel room in 2003 was laid out in the 2.6 million-word document released on Wednesday.

Blair's decision to write a foreword for the dossier that concluded Iraq had or could quickly deploy WMDs "indicates a distinction between his beliefs and the JIC's actual judgements," Chilcot's report reads."The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons," it adds.

In 2003, Gilligan asked Kelly about the unreliable evidence: "What do you mean? They made it up?"

Kelly replied, according to Gilligan's notes: "No, it was real information. But it was included in the dossier against our wishes because it wasn't reliable. It was a single source and it was not reliable." Kelly blamed Campbell and his press office for that — the same Campbell who, this week, said the BBC was to blame for Kelly's death.

He gave a "classic" example: "The statement that WMD were ready for use within 45 minutes. Most things in the dossier were double-source but that was single source. And we believed that the source was wrong."

Gilligan ultimately explains the origin of the mis-attributed "sexed-up" quote. Kelly originally told him that the report was dull, so Gilligan asked what changed: "He said: 'Yes, that is right, until the last week it was just as I told you. It was transformed in the week before publication.' I said: 'To make it sexier?' And he said: 'Yes, to make it sexier,'" Gilligan told the 2004 inquiry.


Chilcot's report delves heavily into the intelligence failure that Gilligan and Kelly had stumbled onto.

One section of his voluminous report mentions that a member of the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) — a unit to which Kelly provided information — had sent a letter "reflecting concerns that some of the statements on chemical and biological weapons in the draft could not be substantiated by the intelligence seen by the DIS."

"Many dark actors playing games."

The Chilcot report breaks down how members of the intelligence committee, the JIC, considered the reservations from the DIS but, ultimately, ignored most of them. John Scarlett, chair of the committee who was involved in drafting the report, and Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Prime Minister Blair, exchanged an email, obtained by the inquiry, on the night after JIC had expressed reservations:

"The dossier is good and convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced," Powell wrote to Scarlett.

Campbell, the director of communications, made numerous recommendations to Scarlett on changes that needed to be made in the report. Early language of the dossier said Hussein was attempting to purchase enriched uranium.

"Can we say that he [Saddam] has secured uranium from Africa?" reads one email from Campbell to Scarlett.

While 10 Downing Street may not have dictated intelligence to be fabricated, the initial theory from the BBC that the intelligence was made "sexier" was not altogether unfounded.


Carne Ross, the UK's main representative to the UN, told the inquiry that "the nuanced judgements contained in the internal JIC assessments, for instance, were massaged into more robust and frightening statements about Iraq's WMD capability."


The Chlicot inquiry was a prime opportunity for prime actors at the time to fire back with their version of what happened.

"Intelligence alone was never the basis for my judgement about the nature of the threat which Iraq posed," reads a memo provided by then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

"There has been an assumption that the public reception of the dossier at the time was a sort of: 'My God! Have you seen this?' when in fact it wasn't like that at all. It was treated as really rather prosaic and telling people what they knew," Straw said.

But the claims made by the BBC — both the accurate quotes regarding Kelly's skepticism, and the misattributions — nevertheless stirred chaos in the senior ranks of government at the time.

Sir John Chilcot presents the findings of his inquiry. (Dan Kitwood/Pool via AP)

In short order, the Ministry of Defense spun into damage control. They released a statement alleging that the BBC's source would not have had access to the intelligence found in the September dossier and, as such, was mistaken. In July of 2003, a reporter from the Financial Times called the ministry and offered Kelly's name. The ministry confirmed it.

After the Times published the name, and Kelly and his wife had hastily left home to protect themselves from perceived danger, the scientist was hauled before a Parliamentary committee and interrogated about the meeting.


In a barely audible voice, Kelly remained quietly evasive, implying it hadn't been him who had supplied the evidence to Gilligan.

Just a few days later, Kelly went for his nightly walk. He bumped into an elderly neighbor who asked how he was doing: "Not too bad," he told her. He walked off towards Harrowdown Hill a minute later, and didn't return.

According to the local coroner, Kelly ingested as many as 30 powerful painkillers and slashed his left wrist.

"I am satisfied that Dr Kelly took his own life by cutting his left wrist and that his death was hastened by his taking Coproxamol tablets. I am further satisfied that there was no involvement by a third person in Dr Kelly's death," wrote Lord Hutton in the final report of the inquiry into Kelly's death.

The inquest into his death has, nevertheless, been challenged by a variety of sources.

The Daily Mail has proclaimed it a "cover-up." A smattering of doctors have, for years, called for a new inquiry, citing a lack of fingerprints and blood at the scene of his death. One conspiracy-minded website assembled a 66-page report looking into his death, heavily implying he was murdered. Even Thom Yorke, frontman of Radiohead, entered the debate: "Did I fall or was I pushed? And where's the blood?" Yorke signs on Harrowdown Hill, from his solo album The Eraser.

The Chilcot inquiry didn't re-hash the circumstances of Kelly's death. It did, however, lend some credence to some final words that Kelly sent to Judith Miller, then a reporter for the New York Times who had infamously helped make the case for war based on faulty intelligence.

"I heard from another member of your fan club that things went well for you today. Hope it's true," wrote Miller to Kelly on the day before his death.

"I will wait until the end of the week before judging," Kelly responded. "Many dark actors playing games."

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling