It has the tawdry, implausible feel of a plot twist in a second-rate Tom Clancy novel. Britain's most distinguished expert on biological weapons, a mild, 59-year-old career bureaucrat of unblemished reputation, briefly rockets onto the national stage when he must tell a parliamentary committee about his contacts with a BBC journalist who may or may not have relied upon him to produce an incendiary story that challenged the integrity of the government. He appears strained while testifying mumbling and shaking his head denies being the source for the story, and complains about the experience afterwards, but the committee doesn't seem to suspect him of anything a basically unremarkable encounter. Two days later he leaves his house for an afternoon walk, coatless despite unpleasant weather. The following day the police find his body in a nearby field. He had taken some painkillers and slit his left wrist. And then, two days later, the BBC confirms that he was the source for the devastating story after all.
The suicide last week of Dr. David Kelly, an advisor to the Ministry of Defense on biological and chemical weapons, inserted a human tragedy into the already bitter fight over whether Tony Blair oversold the case for war on Iraq. Kelly had visited Iraq nearly 40 times, and contributed to the dossier Blair released last September that argued Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was trying to get more. Blair's approval ratings have been floundering since BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan reported that a "British official involved in the preparation of the dossier" had fingered Blair's communications director, Alastair Campbell, for "sexing up" that document over the objections of intelligence officials.
But by last week, as Parliament emptied for the long summer recess, Blair had grounds to think he might be turning a corner. By majority vote, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons had cleared Campbell of tampering with the dossier. After a second session with Gilligan last Thursday, the committee's chairman declared his colleagues found him a "most unsatisfactory witness" who had changed his story, a charge Gilligan vehemently denied. Then Kelly's suicide put the dispute back on the front pages and in a "weird new dimension," says a Whitehall official. The Daily Mail's headline after he died captures the feverish anger at the government: proud of yourselves?, it reads, over pictures of Blair, Campbell and Defense Minister Geoff Hoon. At a press conference in Japan, on an Asian trip that seemed almost surreal in its bad timing, a visibly shaken Blair was even asked if he had "blood on his hands." That's because Campbell was apparently instrumental in arranging the testimony that caused Kelly such heartache.
How did that happen? It was Kelly himself, freshly returned from an Iraqi trip, who first alerted his superiors that he had briefed Gilligan on May 22, after he partially recognized himself in Gilligan's testimony about how his main source had described the WMD dossier. But Kelly also told his bosses he hadn't said anything bad about Campbell, raising the prospect delicious to Campbell, who has been in a ferocious fight with the BBC over Gilligan's accusations that he could now offer up living proof that Gilligan may himself have "sexed up" an otherwise legitimate interview. The bbc stood by Gilligan's story, and in announcing on Sunday that Kelly was the source, declared that "we accurately interpreted and reported the factual information obtained by us during interviews with Dr. Kelly." This doesn't tally with Kelly telling his bosses that he hadn't impugned Campbell to Gilligan.
Described as a "consummate professional" by colleagues, tough enough to grind down Iraqi officers who were trying to stymie weapons inspections, Kelly was nevertheless not a major player in producing the dossier on Iraqi weapons. He supplied mostly historical information for the document. He would certainly have heard rumblings in Whitehall that the intelligence services were unhappy about the way their work was used as part of Blair's effort to make the case for war, but he was not in an obvious position to know how the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee handled Campbell's suggestions about what secret information to put in the dossier.
Two weeks ago, after Kelly first came forward, the Ministry of Defense issued a release that described Kelly's rebuttal of Gilligan without naming him. But reporters soon identified him; indeed, they were led to Kelly after a quiet steer from government officials. Thrust into the limelight, and finally called to explain himself before the Foreign Affairs Committee, Kelly faced a terrible bind. If in chatting to Gilligan, he had suggested that Campbell "sexed up" the dossier, he may have overstated what he actually knew. Before the Committee, he either had to take responsibility for that and humiliate himself publicly or back up Gilligan, which would contradict what he had already told the Ministry of Defense. He might also have accused Gilligan of making it all up.
For a man whose colleagues recall an ironclad commitment to the truth, this was a terrible dilemma and it showed. One friend who saw Kelly the day before his testimony said he was "very worried" about his state of mind. During the hearing, he chose to slalom through the questions: without trashing Gilligan, he tried to back the government. He talked so quietly that he was asked repeatedly to speak up, and finally the M.P.s had the ventilation system switched off so they could hear him. Asked whether he thought the September dossier had been doctored by Downing Street, Kelly said, "I had no doubt that the veracity of it was absolute." He repeated that he didn't single out Campbell for criticism. When asked by the Committee if the Campbell accusations had come from him, he said: "My belief is that I am not the main source."
In fact, Kelly came out relatively unscathed from his testimony. The M.P.s directed their hostility at his bosses, and never pressed him very hard. No one ever asked him to describe his encounter with Gilligan from start to finish. Yet many of his answers plead memory lapse or were oddly vague. When asked directly if anything he said to Gilligan could have been construed as implicating Campbell, Kelly said: "I find it very difficult to think back to a conversation I had six weeks ago." One official who knew him is sure Kelly was still trying to serve the truth. "He was a very private man, completely unused to the star-chamber treatment. I think his mental defenses were so weak that during his testimony he was actually in a state of some confusion." Because he had talked to Gilligan, "he thought he was responsible for this huge political firestorm, and he was thrust into a public world he'd never seen." His suicide, this official believes, was not an expression of shame, but the irrational conclusion of a depressed mind. The untimely death of a good man caught in a war between the government and the BBC "someone who did more to get rid of WMDs in Iraq than Blair or Bush ever did," in the words of the official ironically gives both of them an out. If Kelly told Gilligan one thing about Campbell and his bosses another, both sides can claim they were operating in good faith. Blair, calling for "respect and restraint," swiftly approved a judicial inquiry into Kelly's suicide. In the spy novel, the investigators would find a secret document revealing the dead man's motivations, and a new crisis would ensue. David Kelly's case may prove no less dramatic.