'Russian roulette' with Kelly

2003-09-16 16:59

London - The Ministry of Defence was accused on Tuesday of playing "Russian roulette" with the life of British weapons expert David Kelly, as the inquiry into his suicide cross-examined key witnesses.

The ministry's strategy had "amounted to a parlour game", said Kelly family lawyer Jeremy Gompertz, referring to how the ministry helped journalists identify the former UN arms inspector as the source of a hotly disputed BBC news report alleging the government "sexed up" its intelligence on the Iraqi arms threat to justify the war.

But deputy director of defence intelligence Martin Howard denied the strategy was - in Gompertz's words - a game of "Russian roulette" or a "cynical and irresponsible" strategy to expose Kelly.

Howard faced questioning on Tuesday from both counsel for the inquiry headed by Lord Brian Hutton, and by lawyers for Kelly's family and the BBC. His own attorney was also present.

Questioning more aggressive

The tone of questioning, in particular from Gompertz, was markedly more aggressive than in the first phase of the inquiry, when witnesses only faced questioning from Hutton and the inquiry's legal team.

Hutton is investigating the circumstances surrounding the suicide of 59-year-old Kelly, which hurled Prime Minister Tony Blair into the worst crisis of his six years in office.

Kelly's body was found with a slit wrist on July 18, a week after the Ministry of Defence confirmed he was the source of the BBC's May report which alleged the September 2002 intelligence dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been exaggerated to justify the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

Howard, giving evidence for the third time, said the Ministry of Defence's approach was "absolutely not" a ploy to ensure Kelly was identified as the source of BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan's report.

Kelly, who came forward to his bosses voluntarily, was told it was likely his identity would become public once the ministry put out a statement saying that an official had come forward and admitted speaking to Gilligan.

Not told name would be confirmed

But Howard acknowledged that Kelly had not been told the Ministry of Defence press office would confirm his name to any journalist who came up with it.

Gompertz suggested that information released meant that "any able journalist, with a little research, would be able to identify Kelly".

Earlier on Tuesday, the inquiry heard fresh testimony to confirm that Kelly indeed took his own life.

"There was no pathological evidence to indicate the involvement of a third party in Kelly's death," forensic pathologist Nicholas Hunt said.

"Rather the features are quite typical, I would say, of self-inflicted injury if one ignores all the other features of this case," Hunt added.

Hutton said on Monday he would be recalling a number of key witnesses in the coming days, notably Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, whose political future is widely seen as hanging on the inquiry's outcome.

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