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Britain's Tony Blair Faces Loss of Public's Trust Over Iraqi WMD Claims - 2003-08-04

On July 17, Tony Blair became the fourth British Prime Minister to address a joint session of the U.S. congress, where he received a standing ovation. He acknowledged the applause with these words: “Honorable members of Congress, I’m deeply touched by that warm and generous welcome that’s more than I deserve and more than I’m used to frankly.”

But back in Britain’s House of Commons the day before, it was quite another story. Several members had tough questions for the prime minister. “Does the prime minister share my concern that two-thirds of the British people do not trust the prime minister? Alastair Campbell and the prime minister have created a culture of deceit and spin at the heart of government. When will the Prime Minister realize until he sacks Campbell nobody will believe a word he says anymore?”

Mr. Blair shot back at that member of parliament: “He says that no one can believe a word we say over Iraq, but he is the person last year who was actually telling us that he thought Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction capability, that he fully supported action against Iraq.”

And at a recent press conference, Mr. Blair had this to say: “People need to know that what we did in Iraq was right and justified. And that’s a case that we have to not just assert but prove over time, both in relation to weapons of mass destruction and in relation to the improvement of Iraq.”

Still, his popularity has fallen dramatically in recent weeks. Public opinion polls indicate a majority of the British public believes the government overstated the case for war. The absence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has not helped the prime minister’s case.

Another blow came within hours after Mr. Blair was hailed at the U.S. Capitol here in Washington. Highly respected British weapons specialist David Kelly was found dead, apparently from taking his own life.

Mr. Kelly was at the center of a fight between the government and the BBC over a hotly contested broadcast that alleged the threat of Iraq’s weapons was intentionally inflated by the government. Mr. Kelly, an adviser to the Ministry of Defense, specialized in chemical and biological weaponry and traveled to Iraq more than 30 times as a weapons inspector. He often spoke to the press and was identified as the possible source.

In the May report, BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan said he was told by a high-level source that the government requested that a September intelligence dossier about Iraq’s threat be ‘sexed up’ [i.e. made more dramatic] to include the fact that Saddam Hussein’s weapons could be launched within 45 minutes. Mr. Gilligan said the source doubted the 45 minute claim but said it was included at the behest of the Blair government. After Mr. Kelly’s apparent suicide, the BBC revealed he was in fact the source of the report.

Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College in London and author of numerous books on British defense policy, says the controversial BBC report had profound implications. “The importance of the Gilligan report,” he says, “was that it suggested that the government had presented the case beyond that which the intelligence warranted. The basic argument is that they wanted to go to war and were looking for ways to make the case rather than waiting to see if the case was really there.”

Mr. Freedman says the British government and the BBC have been at odds before, but never with such acrimony. In a surprising move, the government called the report an outright lie and demanded an apology. The BBC refused, standing by Mr. Gilligan. The government continued to demand for a retraction, a tactic that Lawrence Freedman says backfired.

“With regard to the government,” he says, “it was clear that the government’s policy on presenting the evidence [against Iraq] had not been absolutely scrupulous. They should not have been surprised that stories like this did emerge, and if they’d dismissed it with evidence and confidence rather than chasing the BBC for an apology, then the whole thing would not have gotten out of hand.”

David Anable, President of the International Center of Journalists and former managing editor of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, says “part of the reason the government is falling down here is that it appears to have threatened the BBC, which is a serious strategic error.”

He agrees that the government’s aggressive attack on the BBC was risky and appears to have failed. Recent polls suggest more Britons are supporting the BBC than the government.

But some observers say the BBC may not emerge from the controversy unscathed. Some critics claim the organization - considered to be one of the world’s most widely respected news broadcasters - has adopted a rather left-wing, anti-government agenda that tainted its coverage of the war.

Others disagree, saying BBC reporting was balanced and reflected popular attitudes that questioned the need for war.

David Anable says the issue is not about bias, but whether reporters stick to the facts. “I think that the BBC is a fine organization and has excellent reporting,” he says, “and infinitely better on the international stage than almost any other. Having said that, I do think in recent years, and not just on this occasion, the BBC’s standards have somewhat declined on keeping personal opinions out of the reporting.”

Some observers say such is the case with Andrew Gilligan’s report. They contend he possibly overstated what he was told by David Kelly. Under sharp questioning by a British Parliamentary committee just days before his apparent suicide, Mr. Kelly said he did not recognize himself as Mr. Gilligan’s source.

A judicial inquiry into David Kelly’s death is being conducted under Lord Hutton, a member of Britain’s highest court. After Lord Hutton opened the inquiry with a minute of silence in honor of David Kelly, he announced he would call top British officials - including Prime Minister Tony Blair - as well as BBC chiefs and reporters to testify.

The inquiry will seek to establish how David Kelly’s name became public and what exactly he told Andrew Gilligan and two other BBC correspondents he briefed.

Bob Atkins, a former BBC reporter and journalism professor at Cardiff University, says the inquiry will provide an inside look. “I think this crisis has given the British public a glimpse behind the scenes of journalism,” he says. “This has lifted the curtain on the whole issue of an anonymous source. Did you get the quote right? What notes did the journalist take down? Should the BBC have run this story based on one source alone?”

Many observers say the inquiry will also keep alive the question that most Britons are asking: whether Tony Blair’s government manipulated information to persuade the public that war in Iraq was necessary.

The inquiry is expected to last several months and could put reputations and careers on the line. Analysts say the findings will also shed light on what drove a well respected scientist who cared passionately about his work to take his own life.