Name Game After Expert's Death

Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair pauses during his monthly briefing at 10 Downing Street in central London, Tuesday March 25, 2003. Blair predicted Tuesday difficult days ahead in the assault on Iraq.
AP
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that he did not authorize the identification of a weapons inspector as the source for a British Broadcasting Corp. report questioning the honesty of a government dossier on Iraqi weapons.

The inspector, David Kelly, killed himself last week after being identified by the British Ministry of Defense as a possible source Kelly was interviewed by a parliamentary committee. After the suicide, the BBC confirmed that Kelly had been its source for the report.

"I did not authorize the leaking of the name of David Kelly," Blair told reporters on a flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong.

Blair, who based his case for military action in Iraq on the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, has been under increasing pressure as weeks have passed with no weapons being found.

"In terms of the security of the world and the suffering of the Iraqi people, it is better to be rid of Saddam Hussein," Blair told students earlier Tuesday at elite Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Blair said coalition inspectors in Iraq were still looking for evidence of programs to make weapons of mass destruction, but added, "I have no doubts that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons."

The Ministry of Defense declined to comment on who authorized Kelly's identification, saying it preferred to wait for the judicial inquiry into his suicide.

"We are not speculating about that at all," the ministry said, adding that it would "cooperate fully" with the inquiry.

Journalists have said the ministry offered to confirm or deny to journalists whether they had guessed the correct name, and Kelly's name quickly became public.

The BBC had infuriated the government with a report in May that quoted an unidentified source as questioning the claim in the September dossier that Iraq was poised to deploy some chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

The BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, subsequently said his source had accused Blair's communications director, Alastair Campbell, of insisting on including the claim despite the skepticism of some intelligence officials.

A parliamentary committee probed the charge and cleared Campbell, but criticized the way Blair made the case for war. It said Campbell, a former reporter, should not have run a committee assembling intelligence for the war. The government was also faulted for presenting a 12-year-old student thesis, plagiarized for a February dossier on Iraq's weapons, as intelligence.

But Campbell and other members of Blair's government have pressed the BBC to apologize for the story, but the BBC has refused. The dispute grew heated even before Kelly's death; now the taxpayer-funded broadcaster and the government are scrambling to win the battle for the public trust.

Other media outlets in Britain's fiercely competitive news industry have joined the battle.

Conservative papers run by Rupert Murdoch led the charge against the BBC, accusing it of withholding Kelly's name until it was too late.

BBC critics have also questioned the substance of the May 29 story criticizing Blair. Kelly didn't think he could be the source for the main allegations in the story, but the BBC says he was. A weapons expert working for the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Office, Kelly was characterized as a "senior intelligence source."

But Blair is also under fire. Opposition politicians want a judicial inquiry into Kelly's death to also look at the intelligence used to justify the war.

The prime minister, whose opponents have often accused of obsessively "spinning" from 10 Downing Street, has seen his support erode as the row over intelligence goes on.

According to a poll published in the Guardian newspaper, 54 percent are unhappy with his performance and only 39 percent find him trustworthy.