Sunday, February 1
Hutton Inquiry Whitewashes Blair Government's Exaggerations
Professor of History, University of Michigan, January 29, 2003

Seumas Milne of the Guardian argues that the report by Lord Hutton on the David Kelly affair is biased in favor of the government of Tony Blair.

This affair is extremely complex. Let me see if I can get it basically right, in a concise way. David Kelly, a microbiologist, had worked for the British ministry of defense and served as a UN arms inspector in Iraq.

It is probably unrelated to the story that in the course of his inspections he met a US servicewoman, Sgt. Mai Pederson, an Egyptian-American. She is alleged to have been an undercover US intelligence officer, but denies it. She, incidentally, had become a member of the Baha'i Faith when whe was a teen in the US. She converted Kelly to the religion, which was founded in Baghdad in 1863 by the Iranian notable Baha'u'llah. ... ...

Kelly returned to his home in Oxford. He was convinced that Saddam still had chemical and biological weapons, and appears to have advised the British government of this belief.

But then beginning in the fall of 2002, he had three conversations with Andrew Gilligan, a BBC defense reporter, from which the reporter took away the impression that Kelly thought the case for Iraqi WMD was being exaggerated by the Blair government.

One issue was whether Blair's director of communications, Alastair Campbell, had intervened in the wording of a British security report on Iraq to make it seem more alarming than did the original phraseology. The reporter then went public with the charge that the Blairites had deliberately exaggerated or in the quaint British phrase "sexed up" the evidence for Saddam's weapons capability. This was on May 22, 2003.

The Blair government strenuously denied any such intentional tampering with the facts, and put enormous pressure on the reporter and the BBC to retract.

On July 4, Kelly came in from the cold and let the Blair government know that he was one of Gilligan's sources, but denied being the sole source or of alleging all the misconduct that Gilligan did.

Blair officials were relieved that Kelly was a relative outsider who wouldn't have had intimate knowledge of cabinet meetings, e.g.; they also knew that Kelly was himself a hardliner on Iraqi WMD, and that it was likely Gilligan had exaggerated Kelly's critique.

They made a deliberate decision to out Kelly. Kelly had a security clearance and wasn't supposed to be talking to journalists, and the Blairites considered prosecuting him under under Draconian British law. He was outed on July 10, 2003. Campbell was particularly hard on Kelly, and resigned later that summer.

Kelly was then found dead in the woods on July 18, 2003, having swallowed a lot of pills and with a wrist slit. (Mai Pederson said in the Sunday Mail this past Sunday that Kelly had always complained of difficulty swallowing pills and refused to take Tylenol, and she flatly disbelieved that he would or could have committed suicide in this manner. He had once confided in another friend that if there were an Iraq war, he feared he would be found dead in the woods [though it may have been Saddam's agents he feared.] The British authorities have treated his death as a suicide.)

After his death there were attempts to discredit Kelly on the grounds of his being a Baha'i, with the tabloid press misconstruing the religion as a "cult." The Baha'i faith is a perfectly respectable religion, to which have belonged US poet laureate Robert Hayden, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, painter Mark Toby, and thousands of other Americans and Britishers. I think there is an authoritarian dark side to the administration of the religion, which practices shunning, but then the same thing is true of the Amish. It doesn't mean they are disreputable.

This charge against Kelly was just a smear. The Baha'i angle may have been irrelevant, anyway. The rank and file of Baha'is tend to be peaceniks and most probably disliked the Iraq War. But the leadership is often very conservative and interested in patronage from governments, and it forbade Baha'is to demonstrate against the war, even as individuals, in winter of 2003. Kelly was a relatively new Baha'i and did not even live in a big community, and is unlikely to have been aware of community politics on the issue.

Blair denies having been involved in the decision to out Kelly, but he appears to have chaired the meeting where the decision was made, so either he is lying or he doesn't pay much attention to what is going on around him. About half the British public think he is lying.

There is a lot of evidence by now that especially in fall of 2002 the Blair government did in fact exaggerate the intelligence on Iraqi WMD, changing the wording of intelligence estimates so as to make them appear more conclusive than they were (see Milne's piece, above). So the substance of Gilligan's report actually seems unexceptionable, though whether what was done could be characterized as a "sexing up" of the documents may still be in dispute.

I suppose what is at issue is whether Blair & Co. were acting in good faith or being dishonest, and their high dudgeon comes in part from a conviction that they were acting in good faith and just "tightening up" the language of the security reports, which they actually believed were dire. But that is a pretty low bar. For all we know even Cheney believes the incredible things that come out of his mouth regarding Iraq.

I take it that the phrase "sexing up" has connotations of dishonesty or insincerity. If Gilligan did anything wrong at all, it was to venture into the territory of intentions, which is admittedly an ethical issue for journalists (how can you know an official's private intentions? Shouldn't you avoid imputing intentions?)

In the weird world of commissions, the fault in this affair has mainly been laid on the BBC, the chairman of which has just had to resign. This outcome seems a real shame, since the BBC was among the better sources of news coverage on the Iraq war, and this scandal will be used by some government officials impatient with the Beeb's famous autonomy to rein it in and make it a house organ for the party in power.

Kelly's death is still a bit of a mystery. Whoever outed him really should be made to resign, since it was most improper, but given the tenor of the Hutton report that is unlikely to happen. Ironically, Kelly, like most of the weapons inspectors, probably wasn't suspicious enough of the intelligence on Iraqi WMD or the ways in which the US and British governments spun it.

posted by Juan Cole at 1/29/2004 08:31:36 AM
on his website:
Juan Cole * Informed Comment *
Thoughts on the Middle East, History, Islam, and Religion

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