Deceit and the Death of David Kelly
By Dennis Hans
David Kelly, the British weapons inspector who took his life
earlier this summer, would likely be alive today if the the
best and brightest of British intelligence had not engaged
in "passive deceit." If they had not allowed a misinterpretation
to lodge in the brains of the media and public, Kelly would
not have made the allegations that started the unfortunate
chain of events culminating in his death.
Deceit can be active or passive. An example of active deceit
is to claim that you "know" that Iraq continued to produce
chemical and biological weapons from 1999 to 2002 when you
merely suspect such was the case. The September 24, 2002 dossier
Weapons of Mass Destruction" gave the false impression
that a mere "judgment" - based on limited, unconfirmed intelligence
- was an established fact. The misleading formulation was
presented both in the main text, prepared by the Joint Intelligence
Committee (JIC) under the supervision of JIC chairman John
Scarlett, and in the Prime Minister's Foreword, penned by
Alastair Campbell and reviewed and approved by Tony Blair.
Passive deceit occurs when you're in position to correct
a misperception but you fail to act. Perhaps you prefer to
allow the misperception to lodge in the brains of citizens
as fact, because it serves your political interests. An example
of passive deceit is the non-response of two intelligence
chiefs, Scarlett and MI6's Sir Richard Dearlove, after much
of the British public and media assumed from their reading
of the dossier that Iraq could launch a WMD attack on Britain's
overseas interests (if not on Britain itself) within 45 minutes
of an order to do so.
In fact, Iraq could not. The spy bosses knew it could not,
yet neither man appeared to make any effort to correct the
misimpression or urge anyone in the Blair administration to
Presenting the 45-Minute Claim to the Public
According to senior British spooks, a few weeks before the
publication of the dossier British intelligence received information
from a reliable source that a second reliable source - a senior
Iraqi military man - said Iraq could deploy some of its chemical
and biological weapons within 20 to 45 minutes of an order
to fire them. Intelligence analysts presumed that the weapons
in question were battlefield munitions with scant range -
that is, they posed a threat to Iraqi citizens and perhaps
foreigners living within a few miles of Iraq's borders. The
analysts did not believe the Iraqi's info referred to the
20 or fewer long-range missiles Iraq allegedly still possessed,
which if they existed could reach British bases on the island
of Cyprus. (We can, of course, add "allegedly" to the chem/bio
As for missiles that might reach Mother England, not even
Tony Blair pretended Iraq had such weapons. But just to be
on the scary side, he or Campbell removed this reassuring
sentence from an early draft of the Foreword: "The case I
made is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London
or another part of the UK (he could not) ..."
No need to unduly comfort the public with reliable information
on the limited nature of the Iraqi threat.
The "45 minutes" claim appears four times in the dossier.
In the Blair/Campbell Foreword, it's presented as established
fact, and the preceding sentence declares, "Intelligence reports
make clear that he sees the building up of his WMD capability,
and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as
vital to his strategic interests, and in particular his goal
of regional domination."
Consider these three consecutive bullets from a section
in the main text laying out "what we know":
Iraq possesses extended-range versions
of the SCUD ballistic missile in breach of UNSCR 687 which
are capable of reaching Cyprus, Eastern Turkey, Tehran and
Israel. It is also developing longer-range ballistic missiles;
Iraq's current military planning specifically
envisages the use of chemical and biological weapons;
Iraq's military forces are able to use
chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and
logistical arrangements in place. The Iraqi military are able
to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to
Only a fool would read those passages and think, "I gotta
hunch that the only weapons that can be deployed within 45
minutes are battlefield munitions with minimal range."
Passive Deceit Works Its Magic
JIC chairman John Scarlett and MI6 chief Richard Dearlove
have explained to the Hutton Inquiry that yes, the public
misinterpreted the passages, and no, that was not the intent.
So why didn't they correct the misinterpretation? Even if
they preferred to remain anonymous, as befitting spy chiefs,
they could have spoken to Blair and Campbell and urged them
to clue the public in. After all, the dossier was presented
as a work of the intelligence services, the JIC in particular.
The JIC chairman should have been concerned that, despite
his best intentions, the public had got the wrong idea. Wouldn't
he want senior government officials, including the prime minister,
to go on TV and say, "Hey, sorry about the confusion and the
scare, but here's what that '45 minutes' really means"?
Both from the standpoint of the JIC's reputation and the
importance of informing rather than misinforming citizens
in a democracy, a prompt, well-publicized clarification was
in order. But it was not forthcoming.
On September 22, 2003, Minister of Defence Geoff Hoon told
the Hutton Inquiry that he too knew the true meaning of the
45-minute claim. Asked why he did nothing a year ago when
British newspapers ran scary headlines about the Iraqi threat,
based on a logical but false interpretation of the dossier,
he faulted the media for engaging in "exaggeration," said
it was not his duty to correct their errors, and added it
had been his experience that getting the press to issue corrections
was "time-consuming and fruitless."
Hoon's astounding testimony on this point (click
here and scroll down to sections 81-84) may well end his
A Misimpression Quickly Corrected
One can contrast the willingness of Hoon, Scarlett and Dearlove
to allow the media and public to assume their misinterpretation
was in fact correct with the reaction of the Blair team when
the public received a false impression on another matter.
On May 29, 2003, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan told listeners
that a well-placed source told him that the 45-minute claim
was inserted into the dossier not by intelligence pros, but
by Blair's communication chief, Alastair Campbell, and that
the claim remained in the dossier despite the government's
belief that it was probably wrong.
Campbell, Blair, Scarlett and Dearlove knew the story was
false. Did they think, "Oh, what's the harm in this story
lodging in the minds of the public and media as gospel truth?
And even if we issue a clarification, there's no guarantee
that the media will even report what we say." No, they didn't
see any upside in letting this particular misimpression stand,
given that it called into question the integrity of every
one of them. Blair later told the Hutton Inquiry that if it
were true that his government had misled the public to win
support for war, it "would mean we had behaved in the most
disgraceful way and I would have to resign as prime minister."
Downing Street answered the charge the same day it was made,
refuting the thrust of Gilligan's story and saying that the
substance of the dossier was the work of the intelligence
services. In the days and weeks to follow, Campbell in particular
aggressively answered the allegations in Gilligan's report
and even went after Gilligan's BBC bosses.
Blair and Campbell were in a position to set the citizenry
right and that's just what they did - in a very public fashion.
No passivity, no sitting back quietly and allowing the public
to be deceived by a misleading report.
What Did Blair Know and When Did He Know It?
One thing that still needs clarification is whether Blair
and Campbell knew, just as Hoon knew, that the JIC had judged
the 45-minute claim to be a reference only to battlefield
munitions. If they knew, they need to explain why they implied
otherwise in the Foreword and why they didn't insist that
the rest of the dossier make that point crystal clear. If
they knew, Blair would seem to be guilty of that resigning
offense. There may be a technical difference between actively
deceiving the public and engaging in a sly act of passive
deception, but at the root of both forms of deception is a
cynical contempt for the public's right to know.
If Blair and Campbell were fooled just like the British
public, did there come a time in the days, weeks and months
after publication that the intelligence chiefs clued them
in on the real meaning of 45 minutes? If so, why didn't Blair
and Campbell clue the public in? If Scarlett and Dearlove
didn't inform the prime minister, why didn't they?
The Conning and Suicide of David Kelly
Among those who assumed the dossier's 45-minute claim related
to missile-delivered WMD was Dr. Kelly, Britain's leading
expert on biological weapons. That's why he was bothered by
the dossier's discussion of 45 minutes: he didn't see how
that missiles could be loaded with WMD and readied for attack
Kelly was confused because the people in position to clear
up the confusion preferred to allow Brits to make a false
presumption that increased the likelihood they would support
Blair's Iraq policy.
Kelly wouldn't have talked about the 45-minute claim in
May 2003 with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan if the matter had
been clarified in September. There would have been no ensuing
Campbell-BBC brouhaha, no effort to find out who was Gilligan's
source, for there would have been no story and no source.
Kelly wouldn't have been hounded. He would have spent the
summer in government service doing what he was exceptionally
good at: investigating Iraqi WMD programs in Iraq.
There would have been no unbearable pressure, no long, troubled
walk, no sad death years before his time.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses
in mass communications and American foreign policy at the
University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq
war he published Lying
Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His Techniques of Deceit
Disinformation Age. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu