Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Tape backs BBC's alllegations of exaggerated threat

AFP , LONDON

A British inquiry into the suspected suicide of a scientist at the center of a political storm Wednesday heard a tape recording which appeared to back claims that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons.

BBC journalist Susan Watts provided the tape recording in which David Kelly, a respected defense ministry expert on Iraqi weapons, said that a desperation for evidence had led to arguments between the government and the intelligence services.

The inquiry in London heard that Kelly said the government had over-played a claim in its September 2002 dossier that it had evidence Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons in as little as 45 minutes.

"It was a statement that was made and it just got out of all proportion. They were desperate for information which could be used," Kelly told Watts, the science editor of BBC televison's Newsnight program.

"They were pushing hard for information which could be released. That was one that popped up and it was seized on, and it was unfortunate that it was," Kelly said on the tape, adding that he had been involved in the "whole process" of producing the dossier.

That "is why there is the argument between the intelligence services and [Blair's office], because things were picked up on and once they've picked up on it, you can't pull it back, that's the problem," Kelly said on the May 30 recording, played to the inquiry.

On May 29, another BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, who was using Kelly as his prime source, reported that the government had "sexed up" the official dossier on Iraqi weapons.

Gilligan also used a newspaper article in June to report that Blair's key aide and media chief Alastair Campbell was responsible for ordering intelligence officers to beef up the Iraq dossier to make the case for war against the regime of Saddam Hussein more compelling.

This report was strongly denied by the government and sparked a furious row between the BBC, the world's largest broadcaster, and Blair's press office.

Watts, giving her testimony on the third day of the inquiry's hearings at London's Royal Courts of Justice, said there were significant differences between Gilligan's report and her own.

"Namely, that I did not include the name of Alastair Campbell," Watts said.

There has been widespread speculation that Campbell, who became involved in a public wrestling match with the BBC before Kelly's death, intends to step down soon after the inquiry by senior judge Brian Hutton delivers its findings after several months of hearings.

"All I can say is [Blair's] press office. I've never met Alastair Campbell," Kelly told Watts when asked if she could name him in connection with his misgivings over the preparation of the dossier.

"I think Alastair Campbell is synonymous with that press office because he's responsible for it," Kelly added.

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