Paying the blood price

The death of weapons scientist David Kelly has highlighted Blair's continuing crisis over Iraq, writes Manny Neira

After the human tragedy of war in Iraq, New Labour Productions have been treating us to a farce: The search for weapons of mass destruction. As ever, the whole audience (the British people) is in on the joke: there are none. As ever, the hapless hero (Tony Blair) must pretend that there are, or face calamity. As ever, the hero’s co-conspirator (Alistair Campbell) is even dafter than the hero. And, above all, there is an auntie (appropriately enough, the BBC) involved.

Regular readers of the Weekly Worker will have followed every twist and turn of the plot: and, as Blair has played his role deadpan, when this critic wrote his reviews, what could he do but lead the laughter?

But there is precious little to laugh at in this instalment, as the analogy has finally broken down. Blair is not an amiable fool, but a cynical agent of forces even more cynical than himself. Our call remains the same. Do not be distracted by the nonsensical disinformation of a government in crisis: the reality is plain. The events of the last week have shown as clearly as the war itself the reality of what passes for ‘democracy’ when democracy is chained to the service of power and privilege.

Death of a civil servant

At 11 o’clock last Friday, police found the body of Dr David Kelly lying on Harrowdown Hill in Oxfordshire, a short distance from his home. He died after losing blood from a cut in his left wrist. Thames Valley police reported finding a blade, and an empty packet of painkillers, at the scene.

This news quickly reached Tony Blair’s private cabin, as a Boeing 777 flew him from Washington to Tokyo for a six-day diplomatic tour of the far east. His mood on boarding was elated: his address to the US legislature was the bone thrown to the prime minister for betraying the democratic wish of the British people, and supporting the invasion of Iraq. According to journalists flying with him, he was shaken and ashen-faced on hearing of Dr Kelly’s death. A promised three-hour briefing on Blair’s discussions with Bush was abandoned. Instead there was a belated, short and sudden announcement of a judicial inquiry made when the plane was only eight miles from landing and little time remained for questions.

Whatever nonsense the conspiracy theorists may peddle, Kelly committed suicide. His death was the grisly and bizarre climax of the British government’s increasingly shrill attempts to evade the charge that their war on Iraq was, even in their own terms, simply mass murder. Blair repeatedly justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to enforce UN resolutions which forbade Iraq from holding WMDs. Not only have none been found, but week by week evidence has accumulated of the lies he and his colleagues told to substantiate their claimed existence.

On the back foot, the government has been fighting a bitter and underhand campaign of disinformation and political bullying to obscure the issues and defend itself. The story of how Dr Kelly became a victim of the government’s political desperation is so well known now that I will not bore you with a full repetition of the events. A sketch will suffice. After the breathtakingly casual statement made by US deputy defence secretary Wolfowitz that WMDs were “the one issue that everyone could agree on” (or, put another way, a pretext for war), Blair has been in trouble.

Promises that WMDs would be found were scaled down to promises of evidence of WMDs, then to promises of evidence of WMD programmes, and finally to promises of evidence of an intention to establish WMD programmes. ‘Mistakes’ were admitted in the production of the dossiers. In short, the substance of the case against Blair has never been seriously contended, and yet for some reason the government drew the line at one last accusation: that Downing Street ‘director of communications’ Alistair Campbell had a hand in the assertion attributed to the security services that Saddam could have activated his WMDs in three quarters of an hour.

This accusation was reported by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, and attributed to a government source. Campbell responded apoplectically, writing furious letters to the BBC and turning up at Channel 4 news demanding to be interviewed. Behind the scenes, MI6 boss Richard Dearlove was wheeled out to persuade a foreign affairs select committee to clear the spinmaster in its report. And finally, on July 3, civil servant David Kelly approached his bosses with the admission that he was probably Gilligan’s source. As a result, within a fortnight he would have taken his own life.

Man from the ministry

His motives for coming forward are unclear. Whatever they were, Dr Kelly underwent five days of ‘debriefing’ by the ministry after breaking cover. Many politicians and journalists have spoken of the fearsome efficiency of the New Labour political machine, and yet here it was not being directed at a journalist or a politician, but a scientist and career civil servant. We need not speculate about physical intimidation: simple consistent pressure combined with implicit threats to career and reputation, sustained over such a period, have daunted more experienced players than Kelly.

Finally, its star witness carefully groomed, the ministry felt ready to make public the fact that that someone had confessed to meeting Gilligan. Their statement did not name Kelly, but a letter sent to the BBC demanding that they confirm his identity did and, as the BBC naturally refused to do so, the government leaked his name to the press themselves. Blair denies authorising this, but defended the government’s willingness to provide confirmation “once the name was out there”. Dr Kelly was thrown to the wolves.

The foreign affairs select committee which had previously cleared Campbell reopened its enquiry to question him. Rereading the transcript of this interview is extremely disturbing: here was a man clearly under the most intense opposing pressures. His fear manifested itself as confusion and stubbornness.

MPs wanted to know if he considered himself likely to be Gilligan’s main source. He said he thought not - though he recognised some of his own words in Gilligan’s reports, he disowned the most important ones. Above all, he denied that he had told Gilligan that Campbell had been responsible for doctoring intelligence reports. Why, then, had he not objected to the ministry’s statement that he was likely to be Gilligan’s main source? He gave no clear answer, bluntly accepting this inconsistency in his evidence when it was pointed out to him.

He stonewalled many questions, repeatedly insisting that some be referred to the ministry of defence. He made sometimes bitter throwaway remarks, the full weight of which could not have been felt until after his death.

Almost throughout, he spoke so quietly that MPs frequently had to ask him to raise his voice. On one significant point, though, it seems sheer professional pride conquered any caution he might feel. When asked if he thought it likely that Saddam could have deployed WMDs in 45 minutes, he first hedged, querying the context of the question and the meaning of ‘deploy’, but finally said: “Basically it would be very difficult to see how Iraq could deploy in 45 minutes.” So even the government’s secret weapon, wheeled out against the BBC, did not believe this propaganda was true: Campbell himself may or may not have written it, but it was still a lie sold to the British people.

It was clear to all that Dr Kelly was being politically exploited, and much against his wishes. MPs repeatedly asked Dr Kelly whether he felt that he was being mistreated by the ministry in being pushed into public exposure in this way, and used as a pawn in a propaganda game. His reply on this point was consistent and cryptic: “I accept the process that I have encountered.”

In the end, though, he could not accept it: finding the pressure he was under unendurable. In an email he wrote to American author Judy Miller hours before he left his home for the last time, he spoke of “many dark actors playing games”.

Buying time

Blair’s reaction to his death was not based on human sympathy. His policy towards Iraq has already cost countless lives, amongst the coalition forces and especially the Iraqi population. In September 2002, Blair accepted that Britain would have to “pay the blood price” for its ‘special relationship’ with the US. With so much blood on his hands already, therefore, why was he shaken by this single casualty?

The truth is that Blair’s last, desperate gambit against exposure and censure had gone disastrously wrong, and its cynicism could not be more clear. Blair’s immediate concession of a judicial inquiry was bowing to the inevitable. It might just buy him the time he needs to ride out the crisis. The demands for his resignation, even from his own MPs, began the day Dr Kelly died.

The man appointed to head the inquiry, Lord Hutton, was perhaps previously best known for ruling that general Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to face criminal charges there relating to his murderous dictatorship in Chile. However, Blair is unlikely to allow the same freedom of expression in his own case. While initially promising the widest remit to Hutton’s team, it has not taken long for the first hints to be dropped that investigating Dr Kelly’s death is not the same as investigating the whole story of how Britain joined a war to rid a country of WMDs when it had none.

We must demand, of course, the fullest possible extent of democracy attainable even under the government’s own rules, and this includes arguing for unquestioned freedom for the inquiry to see any document regardless of security designations, interview members of the intelligences services, and pursue any subject it deems relevant. However, we should have no illusions. Blair is undoubtedly dispensable. If he becomes too great a political liability for the interests he serves, he may well be forced into resignation: but what then? A Brown premiership would not represent progress.

No forgiveness

Blair himself seems to have abandoned the claim that any legal justification for the war will necessarily ever be found. In Washington he made the most astonishing and despicable statement so far: “If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive.”

He is wrong. History will not forgive him. If the interests which he serves deem him a liability and are prepared to see him replaced, even Lord Hutton may not forgive him. But the ultimate power of redress lies in the hands of the British working class: and we shall never forgive him.