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2003-07-22

Nearly 40% of Brits Want Blair To Resign Following Suicide of Gov’t Scientist

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Iraq intelligence scandal grows in London as reporters ask Blair if he has blood on his hands following the apparent suicide of scientist David Kelly. Blair denies he OK’d the leaking of Kelly’s name as a possible source for the BBC’s report that the UK’s Iraq intelligence data was "sexed" up. We talk to longtime Labor MP Tony Benn and the chief political reporter at the London Telegraph.

Prime Minister’s Tony Blair approval rating has plummeted following the suicide of government scientist David Kelly. A recent poll found 39 percent of Britons want Blair to resign.The BBC yesterday admitted that Kelly was the source for its story that Blair sexed up the Iraq Intelligence to make the case for war. Prime Minister’s Tony Blair approval rating has plummeted following the suicide of government scientist David Kelly. A recent poll found 39 percent of Britons want Blair to resign.The BBC yesterday admitted that Kelly was the source for its story that Blair sexed up the Iraq Intelligence to make the case for war.

Police said Kelly committed suicide on Thursday. His body was found on Friday. Just days before Kelly was brought before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee for intense questioning. Kelly’s name first came to the public light after the government leaked his name as a possible source.

Today Blair insisted he played no role in outing Kelly as a source. Today’s Financial Times claims Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, authorized his press office’s strategy of confirming Kelly’s name to journalists who came up with it.

The BBC has to date backed the report by its defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan. According to Toby Helm, political correspondent of the London Telegraph, public support for the BBC has remained much higher than for the Blair government

  • Andrew Gilligan, BBC defense correspondent filing a report on May 29 that charged a top British official told him Blair had "sexed up" Iraq intelligence.
  • Toby Helm, chief political correspondent for the London Telegraph.
  • * Tony Benn*, he retired from the British Parliament in May 2001, after serving 50 years. He was the longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party.
  • David Kelly, testifying before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on July 15. Police say Kelly committed suicide three days later. His body was found on Friday. He was most recently working for the British Ministry of Defense. He previously worked as a United Nations weapons inspector.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN:We’re going to play now an excerpt of that report, that was Andrew Gilligan’s report on May 29th.

[TAPE] ANDREW GILLIGAN: What we’ve been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier was that, actually the government probably knew that that 45-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in. What this person says is that a week before the publication date, that the dossier, it was actually rather a bland production. The draft prepared for Mr. Blair by the intelligence agencies actually didn’t say very much more than was public knowledge already. And Downing Street also says, ordered a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed up to be made more exciting.

AMY GOODMAN: That was BBC’s Andrew Gilligan. We’re joined on the line by Tony Benn, retired from the British parliament in 2001, after serving for half a century–the longest serving labor M.P. in the history of the party in Britain and Toby Helm, chief political correspondent for the London Telegraph I want to start with Toby Helm, you’ve been following the David Kelly story very carefully. Can you layout the whole BBC controversy and what happened to David Kelly and ultimately leading to his death?

TOBY HELM: Well, as your clip from Andrew Gilligan made clear, the whole controversy started when Mr. Gilligan claimed to have spoken to somebody in the intelligence community who he said had told him that the government—and he, Gilligan said Downing Street was responsible for this. That Downing Street was somehow frustrated that the information that it had about Iraq weapons of mass destruction, was not dramatic enough, was not convincing enough to persuade a very skeptical public before the war that the danger from Saddam Hussein was as great as Tony Blair believed it was. And that in order to make the case more powerfully, Gilligan says his source told him that Downing Street insisted in inserting a line into a government dossier, saying that Saddam Hussein could fire his weapons in 45 minutes of the notice being given. This was a sort of eye catching top line, if you like, from the report. Which is supposed to make everybody go crikey, we may not have thought it was that bad that now we’re convinced it is. When that claim was made public by Gilligan, Downing Street went mad, basically. Alistair Campbell the head of communications, who was later named by Gilligan as the specific person who inserted that claim, began a vendetta against Gilligan in order to try to get Gilligan to retract that statement. Campbell said this is simply not true. He rallied a lot of defense people behind him to back his case that it wasn’t true. The row then escalated terribly and the hunt for the mole began. Kelly, Dr. Kelly, poor Dr. Kelly, an honorable man who’d worked for years on tracking down Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, felt under increasing pressure, because he knew he’d had a conversation with Gilligan. He came forward, told his bosses that he had, and then the whole murky saga developed of Kelly’s name being made public, exactly how, now, is the main controversy in Britain. And in that pressure and having been forced to give evidence to the Commerce Committee, poor old Dr. Kelly killed himself. That’s roughly where we are at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well Toby Helm thank you for that brief synopsis. When we come back our from 60 second break, former parliamentarian Tony Benn will also be with us. Stay with us… [Let’s] listen to an excerpt of the late weapons inspector, David Kelly, when he testified before the House of Commons.

Q: Is there anything in Mr. Gilligan’s account which you dispute?

DAVID KELLY: I think after you ask me the specific question —

Q: You’ve obviously read —

DAVID KELLY: Yes.

Q: Is there anything there that suggests that Mr. Gilligan was being perhaps, I don’t know, careful with the truth?

DAVID KELLY: It’s not a factual record of my interaction with him…Which is actually difficult to discern from the account that is presented there, is not one that I recognize as being in conversations I had with him there. There is one part which alerted me to that which was the comment about the 30% probability of Iraq actually possessing chemical weapons. That is the sort of thing that I might have said to him.

Q: Mr. Gilligan’s story was basically about drafts of dossiers being changed. Being sexed up, you know what I mean? Did you sort of infer Mr. Gilligan in any way, shape or form that he might have misrepresented what you said?

DAVID KELLY: My conversation with him was primarily about Iraq, about experiences in Iraq and the consequences of the war, which was the failure to use weapons of mass destruction during a war and failure by May 22 to find such weapons. That was the primary conversation that I had with him.

Q: And you certainly never mentioned the C word. that he went on to explain in his column?

DAVID KELLY: The C word?

Q: The Campbell word?

DAVID KELLY: The Campbell word did come up, yes.

Q: From you, you suggested it?

DAVID KELLY: No, it came up in the conversation. We had a conversation about Iraq, its weapons and the failure for them to be used.

Q: So, how did the word Campbell come to be mixed up with all that? What led you to sort of say that?

DAVID KELLY: I did not say that. What I had a conversation about was the probability of harms to use such weapon. The question was then asked, why, if weapons could be deployed at 45 minutes notice, were they not used. And I offered no reason why they may not have been used.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was an excerpt of David Kelly’s testimony before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on July 15th. Police say Kelly committed suicide three days later. Parliamentarian or former parliamentarian, Tony Benn, it’s a privilege to have you with us again. Can you make sense of all this at this point, and how it fits into how people are feeling right now in Britain about the invasion of Iraq?

TONY BENN: Well, the real issue, the real political issue in Britain and in the United States, is whether it was right and there was justification for invading and conquering and occupying Iraq. Now, in Britain because of the death of David Kelly, this has become diverted into an argument between the communications director at Downing Street, Alistair Campbell, and the BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan. Each of whom are accusing the other of lying. Now this in a way is convenient for the prime minister because it diverts attention from whether he should have gone to war. But it’s also very awkward for him because Dr. Kelly, a very distinguished scientist, had his name put into the public domain, appeared before a parliamentary committee, found it very distressing and apparently, committed suicide. But that doesn’t really divert from the question at issue which is about the war.

AMY GOODMAN: One quick question, do you believe he committed suicide?

TONY BENN: Well, I’m going on what I’m told. The possibility that his death might have been by other means is something that may go on and on like Marilyn Monroe’s death and Kennedy’s death and Princess Diana’s death. But I’m not interested in that. The real question is whether the war was justified. And if you go back over history a little bit, it appears to me having heard President Bush speak to the General Assembly—I watched the whole thing on television—as if he had decided then to go to war. The object as far as I can make out was to topple Saddam and maybe get American control of the oil. And then Blair went to see him. And Blair said it should go to the U.N. Now he got a lot of credit for this at the time, but as a matter of fact, it would appear as if Bush was overly ready to let Blix and the inspectors go back, because it would take him six months to get his troops into position. And so Blix was sent in and Blix said, I need a little bit more time. But that was—by then the American forces were ready. So Blix was sent away. And war was declared and Iraq was occupied and conquered. And the prime minister’s difficulty was that he was telling us for months that it was all about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Now I don’t think it ever was. The British dossier, one of them was picked up from an internet account of a PhD thesis written years ago. And then these words were added about Saddam having a capacity within 45 minutes to use his weapons. And that was used to justify a vote in the British parliament for war. People don’t believe that any more. And so the thing is degenerated into this sordid squabble really, between the government and the BBC. But loss of confidence in the prime minister has been the consequence for him, and the long-term political consequence of that, we shall have to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Helms, chief political correspondent for the London Telegraph, The Telegraph has done a poll of Blair’s popularity?

TOBY HELM: Yes. It’s pretty shocking, showing that almost as many people now believe that Blair should resign, as believe he should stay on. 39% of the public actually think the sitting prime minister should resign. A fairly large figure, 41% say he should stay on. But equally damaging I think is the fact that just the general—this is borne out by another poll today—the general loss of trust in Blair. One of the great selling points of Tony Blair was not any great ideology that he brought to the political debate. But it was a general sense in Britain that he was a decent guy. A kind of ordinary guy, a member of the real world who we could trust and who was bringing a sense of proportion, decency, non-fanaticism, non-ideology to politics if you like. Trust was his great thing. Now that is being eroded in a very, very fundamental way. His government looks obsessive. It looks as if it has no sense of proportion. It looks like it runs vendettas, it looks like it makes the wrong call on issues like weapons of mass destruction. All in all, I think if you are to spot a point at which the Blair administration went downhill, it’s now.

AMY GOODMAN: And the public’s confidence in the BBC, a very different picture than we have in the United States because the press in this country very much backed the president in the invasion, whereas the BBC took a different role?

TOBY HELM: Yeah, I mean I think the public generally likes the BBC. And the poll that we did shows much greater faith in the BBC than in the government. Also I think the public finds it quite difficult to grasp exactly where the BBC is supposed to have been a villain in this piece. And I think there is annoyance with it, with the BBC within the political system. The BBC has not behaved 100% brilliantly in this. But on the other hand, my gut feeling is that it’s basically tried to defend the principles of journalism and it has done so in good faith. It’s got it slightly wrong on occasion. And there’s no collapse of confidence among the public of the BBC in this country although the government would want us to think there is.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, last question. As an observer and participant in world politics over the last half century, do you see any hope at this point after the invasion?

TONY BENN: Well, the situation reminds me of the war, that Sir Anthony Eden, the conservative prime minister waged against Egypt in 1956. At the time of Suez, I was in parliament at the time and I remember it very well. And of course then, the United States under President Eisenhower was opposed to war. And that led to the resignation of Eden and the end of the war and British troops withdrawing from Egypt and so on. And I think this is a very, very traumatic moment. Because if you take the broad question we’ve always been as a nation committed to the United Nations charter and we believe that President Bush broke the charter and that Blair went along with it. And the arguments he used were not at all truthful arguments. But the BBC throughout the war in my opinion gave tremendous support to the government. Even to the point of canceling an engagement I had to do a broadcast on the grounds that I was against the war. This idea that the BBC didn’t give the government support is nonsense. But this particular correspondent had an important story which was that the dossier had been specially hyped up in order to make the war more necessary. And I don’t think public confidence in the BBC will diminish but I think the prime minister is in a position that people do not, now feel obliged in any way to believe what he says, not only about this but about anything else. And that lack of confidence could be deadly for his long-term prospects of remaining in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Well Tony Benn, thank you very much for being with us. Retired parliamentarian in parliament until 2001, for half century. Toby Helm, chief political correspondent for the London Telegraph.

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