Blair under fire over dead scientist slur
( 2003-08-06 09:54) (Agencies)
One of Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesmen apologized Tuesday for suggesting the dead weapons expert at the center of a heated political dispute had inflated notions of his own importance.
"I ... unreservedly apologize to Dr. Kelly's widow and her family for having intruded on their grief," the spokesman said in a statement.
Tom Kelly said his comment did not signal that the government was trying to discredit the late scientist, whom the British Broadcasting Corp. has identified as the main source of a report that quoted an unidentified official claiming Blair's office exaggerated evidence about Iraqi weapons to justify war.
The spokesman said he had been outlining questions that the judicial inquiry into David Kelly's death would have to consider but did not claim to have the answers.
"It was in that context that the phrase `Walter Mitty' was used, but it was meant as one of several questions facing all parties, not as a definitive statement of my view, or that of the government," he said. "We were discussing questions, not answers."
He said he had not intended for the conversation to become public.
A Blair spokeswoman said the prime minister, who is vacationing in Barbados, was aware of what had happened but declined to discuss his views.
The Independent newspaper reported Monday that an unidentified senior government official had dismissed David Kelly as a Walter Mitty-style fantasist with an inflated sense of his own importance.
Comparing David Kelly to Mitty, the daydreaming protagonist of a 1941 James Thurber story, the official reportedly said Kelly may have reached beyond what he knew by telling the BBC the government had inflated claims about Iraqi weapons to justify war. The official was also quoted as suggesting Kelly may have misrepresented his conversation with a journalist to his ministry bosses.
The BBC report, which aired in May, led to a bitter row between the broadcaster and Blair's Downing Street office, intensified when Kelly killed himself last month. Blair vehemently denies hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein (news - web sites).
Government critics called for Tom Kelly's dismissal or resignation.
"No. 10 (Downing Street's) capacity to disgust us would seem positively boundless," Labor Party lawmaker Glenda Jackson, a frequent critic of Blair, told BBC radio. "We are in a situation where a man has lost his life, his family has been deprived of a husband and father and it would seem that No. 10 is determined to take away his reputation. They are unspeakable."
She urged that Kelly be fired.
Menzies Campbell, spokesman on foreign affairs for the Liberal Democrat party, who had earlier said Tom Kelly should not remain in his job if he was the source of the comment, said after the apology that the spokesman had done the right thing.
But he added that the episode emphasized the government's excessive reliance on spin and off-the-record briefings.
"We need a new atmosphere of openness and transparency if the political system is to regain public trust," he said.
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