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UK's Hoon drags Blair into dead scientist Inquiry
( 2003-08-28 09:09) (Agencies)

A fateful decision to thrust Britain's top Iraq weapons expert into the limelight days before he killed himself was taken with Prime Minister Tony Blair's approval, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Wednesday.

Hoon -- whose job is on the line for his role in the worst crisis of Blair's six-year premiership -- said to avoid allegations of a cover-up, he overruled top-level advice that he protect the scientist from the public glare.

Widely seen as a potential government "fall guy," Hoon was the most senior official yet to take the stand at the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, who was found with a slashed wrist last month.

Blair is due to testify Thursday and will now face serious probing into his personal role.

Hoon told the inquiry he believed shielding Kelly was not an option after the scientist admitted briefing a BBC reporter who accused the government of "sexing up" a dossier on Iraqi weapons to make the case for a war most Britons opposed.

"I was certainly aware that the prime minister took essentially the same view that I did," he told the inquiry, citing a message from Blair's chief of staff.

"I accept ultimately this was my decision," he added. "I am not in any way trying to avoid that."

At Hoon's prompting, the mild-mannered scientist was grilled by a parliamentary committee on July 15 over his unauthorized meeting with a BBC journalist. Days after the sometimes hostile session, Kelly was found dead near his home.

Kelly's death, and the failure after the war to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to back up warnings in the dossier, have sent Blair's trust ratings plummeting.

A poll in the Sunday Telegraph showed 67 percent of those questioned thought his government had deceived the public.


Wing Commander John Clark, a colleague of Kelly's who accompanied him to the parliamentary hearing, said he had not been looking forward to the experience and had not expected to be thrust into the "full glare of the press."

"Without a doubt he had found it quite stressful," Clark told the inquiry, adding that Kelly later told him that his wife had taken their ordeal "really very badly."

The inquiry has raised particularly awkward questions for Hoon, leading some newspapers to suggest he could lose his job.

Hoon overruled advice from his most senior civil servant to protect Kelly from the Foreign Affairs Committee. Having approved the scientist's appearance, he then contacted the committee chairman to curb the scope of questioning.

Blair's government hoped that by putting Kelly forward it could undermine the BBC report. But ministers also feared Kelly, a world expert on chemical and biological weapons, would cast doubt on a key claim in the dossier that Iraq could launch banned weapons at just 45 minutes' notice.

Blair's top intelligence adviser John Scarlett stepped out of the shadows this week to defend the dossier and reject claims that the government inflated intelligence on Baghdad's weapons.

But the inquiry has shown a series of Blair aides pushed for the dossier to be hardened up shortly before its publication.

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