Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Strange Death of David Kelly

by Norman Baker

Reviewed by Nick Rufford

The Sunday Times
November 11, 2007

Consider this: several senior doctors write to a newspaper to take issue with the official explanation of how David Kelly died. John Scurr, an expert in vascular surgery, concludes: “Frankly I don’t believe that simply cutting an ulnar artery will cause death.” The first paramedics to attend Kelly’s body on a wooded hillside near his Oxfordshire home note that the small amount of blood does not seem consistent with fatal bleeding.

There’s more. The pathologist who pronounced the cause of death later has a change of heart. Then it emerges that police found no fingerprints on the knife that Kelly supposedly used to kill himself or on the water bottle lying next to the body. And why did Operation Mason, the police investigation into his death, start nine hours before Kelly was even reported missing?

If this were the start of a detective novel the reader would quickly suspect foul play. As a weapons scientist, Kelly had access to sensitive information. Among his more intriguing discoveries was Saddam Hussein’s dirty bomb. While working in Iraq in 1995, Kelly found the site where the bomb had been tested eight years previously. The radiological weapon had spread contaminated dust across the desert. Yet this seemingly crucial information was never included in the government’s weapons dossier. Why not? After all, at the time Downing Street was trying to ramp up the case for going to war and the fact that the tyrant had a radiation weapon was surely its strongest card? Unless...Britain helped Saddam develop the bomb back in the 1980s when ministers were selling weapons to Iraq in breach of sanctions. It’s certainly an interesting theory.

Enter Norman Baker, a Lib Dem MP who has already proved his sleuthing abilities. His probing led to Peter Mandelson’s resignation over the Hinduja affair. He brought to light MPs’ profligate expenses. Campaigning on everything from animal vivisection to persecution in Tibet, he has probably done more than any other MP in recent years to expose abuses of power. Along the way he has made enemies who would like to see him dismissed as a madman or a fantasist. He is neither.

Buy The Strange Death of David Kelly by Norman Baker

In The Strange Death of David Kelly, Baker is a latterday Sherlock Holmes, examining all the evidence and uncovering omissions and inconsistencies that cast doubt on the conclusions of the £1.7m Hutton inquiry. Nearly a quarter of 1,000 British adults questioned for a recent BBC poll said they thought Kelly had not killed himself. More were unsure. So Baker has hit on a case ripe for investigation.

Frustratingly, though, he has not solved it. Instead, sifting through testimony from parliamentary inquiries, which he combines with his own research, Baker exposes – more thoroughly than ever before – a government so determined to build a case for going to war that it either lied or was unable to distinguish truth from fiction. It had to cross a legal threshold of proof before our own armed forces would agree to fight. Hence Downing Street summoned up “intelligence” that was little more than hearsay or downright bogus. The now-infamous 45-minute warning of a chemical attack came from a dubious single source. The claim that Saddam was shopping for yellowcake uranium in Niger was based on forged documents. Saddam’s mobile smallpox laboratories turned out to be trailers for filling hydrogen balloons, part of an artillery system sold by Britain to Iraq in 1987.

Remarkably, as Baker reminds us, the protagonists are still in office. John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, has been promoted to chief of MI6; Geoff Hoon is now chief whip; Jack Straw, the justice secretary and lord chancellor; and, perhaps most gallingly, Tony Blair is now a peace envoy. Meanwhile, the Hutton inquiry skewered men who were largely innocent. Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davies and Andrew Gilligan left the BBC.

All this is flawlessly argued by Baker. A shame then, that his conclusion about Kelly’s fate strains credibility. To kill without a trace is difficult, as Baker acknowledges. Therefore, he hints at an Establishment cover-up involving Thames Valley Police which carried out the official investigation into Kelly’s death. It is hard to conceive of crime-scene officers and detectives committing a crime themselves by colluding with senior police and members of the intelligence services, not to mention the coroner and his staff. Even if it were true, would not one honest soul have blown the whistle, or sold their story?
Baker rightly identifies holes in the suicide verdict. He finds no shortage of people who knew Kelly to say he was not the suicidal type. As one of them, I agree; he was almost always jovial and composed. But in suggesting that Kelly died at the hands of a shadowy Iraqi group whose crime was “subsequently covered up by the government”, or that “a tiny cabal within the British Establishment commissioned assassins to undertake [Kelly’s murder]”, Baker is offering an even shakier explanation than suicide. The most likely sequence of events is one Baker himself admits is “plausible”.

On the morning of July 17, Kelly received a number of calls from the Ministry of Defence that unsettled him. At his initial interview with his MoD bosses 10 days previously, he had been told no action would be taken against him over his contact with journalists, but that might change if further information came to light. Since then, Kelly had given evidence in public to the Foreign Affairs Committee, trying to balance honesty with an attempt not to incriminate himself. “It was a juggling act that proved too difficult,” observes Baker. During the hearing, a committee member read part of a transcript of an interview Kelly had given to Susan Watts, a BBC Newsnight journalist. Kelly did not know at that stage that the conversation had been taped. He denied saying the words and, in doing so, misled a parliamentary committee.

Kelly was asked again about his contact with Watts in the July 17 calls from the MoD. Baker describes the following scenario: “Kelly, having thought the worst was over, suddenly realised that his careful attempt to pick his way through the minefield had blown up in his face. He realised that the game was up. Moreover, he would be exposed as having been less than truthful, something that went strongly against his personal ethic.” Baker concludes: “This is certainly a plausible explanation for suicide, if that is what it was. Indeed it is the most plausible.” As a reader you’re forced to agree and then wonder, why look for a more complicated explanation?

There are still unanswered questions, of course. Thames Valley Police has yet to explain the absence of fingerprints, though it has commented on why Operation Mason started nine hours before Kelly was reported missing. It says the start time of the operation was fixed retrospectively to reflect the period of interest. The pathologist did change his view as to the precise cause of Kelly’s death, but his revised conclusion didn’t persuade him or the coroner that foul play was involved. The medical experts who wrote to a newspaper questioning the official cause of death have been countered by others who say that blood loss, exacerbated by an undiagnosed heart condition and combined with an overdose of painkillers, would have been sufficient to kill Kelly.

As to why the government didn’t declare Saddam’s dirty bomb in its Iraq dossier, well, that’s a question the government has yet to answer. When Baker tabled a Commons question he was stonewalled with a written reply from John Reid, then defence secretary. Reid confirmed that the government was indeed aware that Iraq “carried out tests on a radiological device (dirty bomb)”, but gave no further comment.
At least half the readers of this book will suspect Kelly was murdered; for them, Baker provides plenty of support. For those who share my scepticism, however, it’s still an important work. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to conclude that something murky was going on behind closed doors in Whitehall. Hutton’s remit was too narrow ever to get to the bottom of it. As an exploration of what happens when politicians bend the evidence to fit their aims, hoping that the end will justify the means, Baker’s book is hard to beat.

THE STRANGE DEATH OF DAVID KELLY by Norman Baker Politico’s £9.99 pp400

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"As to why the government didn't declare Saddam's dirty bomb in its Iraq dossier, well, that's a question the government has yet to answer."

Let me have a stab. After tests, Iraqi scientists considered a dirty bomb to be a wasteful and ineffective weapon. Foreign powers concluded similarly. Therefore the British Government had no interest in declaring such a fact - especially when MI6 had leaked details to the mainstream media of (clueless) al-Qaeda operatives who hoped to get their hands on one. Boo!

I will consider all evidence, and look forward to reading Norman Baker's book.