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U.K.: British Defense Minister In The Hot Seat In Kelly Controversy

The controversy in Britain surrounding the apparent suicide of former UN arms inspector David Kelly is now firmly focusing on the Ministry of Defense and its top official, Geoffrey Hoon.

London, 23 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The shift in focus comes after British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday denied he had authorized the Defense Ministry to reveal David Kelly's name to the media.

Kelly -- who was found dead on 18 July of an apparent suicide -- was the scientist at the center of allegations that Britain had exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time, the BBC last night announced that one of its journalists has a tape of an interview with Kelly that could help the corporation defend itself against charges that it loosely interpreted Kelly's words in a 29 May report by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan.

Gilligan's report quoted an unnamed "senior intelligence official" as saying the government had exaggerated the threat of Iraq's weapons to justify the war. The BBC report caused a furor within the Blair government, which strongly denied it had spiced up the Iraqi threat for political purposes.

Gilligan's source was later publicly identified as Kelly. It is believed that the intense pressure placed on Kelly once his name was revealed -- including tough questioning before a parliamentary hearing -- led him to kill himself.

The major British daily newspapers say Hoon is now under growing pressure, with some even calling for his resignation.

The "Times" points out that its own disclosure yesterday that Hoon had approved the procedure under which Kelly's identity would be revealed to the media contrasts with Hoon's own statement that the ministry "had made great efforts to protect Kelly's identity." The "Daily Telegraph" says Hoon is now politically isolated.

Robin Oakley is the European political editor in London for CNN. He tells RFE/RL that Hoon's position does, indeed, appear to be precarious.

"Yes, I think Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon is the man who has been most firmly placed in the frame, and we have had conflicting information from Geoff Hoon and the Ministry of Defense because he initially said that they had done everything they could to protect Dr. Kelly's identity," Oakley said. "Then his own director of information at the Ministry of Defense confirmed that, in fact, after clues had been let out to the media, they did confirm Dr. Kelly's identity [to the media]."

The Ministry of Defense issued a statement yesterday pointing out that reports that Hoon had ordered ministry officials to cooperate with journalists by encouraging them to identify Kelly as the story's source were "misleading."

Michael Clarke, director of the International Policy Institute at King's College in London, believes Hoon should have protected his own civil servant and that the pressure Hoon is finding himself under is well-deserved.

"Geoff Hoon, the minister of defense, may -- if it is proved -- have in a sense sacrificed David Kelly as part of the government's campaign against the BBC by, in effect, exposing him in a fairly underhand way -- if that's proved to be the case -- and in a sense sacrificing him."

Hoon is reported to be paying a condolence visit to Kelly's family today.

Meanwhile, the British media also continue to focus on the BBC's role in the Kelly controversy.

Last night, another BBC journalist, Susan Watts, said she has a tape of an interview she conducted with Kelly in which he expresses concern about the way the Blair government presented intelligence about Iraq's weapons. Watts had produced a report on the Iraqi weapons controversy subsequent to Gilligan's report.

The BBC is expected to submit the tape as part of its evidence to a judicial inquiry into Kelly's death being led by Lord Brian Hutton.

Will this tape help the BBC defend itself against accusations that it had exaggerated its own stories based on Kelly's comments?

Oakley said: "If the BBC's evidence seems to suggest that Dr. Kelly was being less than candid before that [Parliament] committee, then it will help the BBC's case. But what it will not do is clear up some of the BBC's presentation of its claims talking about a 'senior official' involved in drawing up the dossier against Iraq, because that was not an accurate description of Dr. Kelly."

Observers say only the Hutton inquiry is likely to bring definitive answers to the most pressing questions in the controversy.