A British judge has begun hearing evidence in his investigation into the death of a weapons scientist at the center of a controversy over whether Britain intentionally exaggerated Iraq's military capabilities before the war.
The initial testimony in the inquiry by senior Judge Brian Hutton focused on the mental state and technical abilities of David Kelly, a British weapons expert who apparently committed suicide last month.
Mr. Kelly died after he was linked to a controversial news story aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation that said the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair had purposely misused intelligence data to overstate Iraq's weapons threat as it tried to influence public opinion six months before the war. Mr. Blair and his spokesman vigorously deny the charge.
The BBC announced after Mr. Kelly's death that he was the primary source for the news story.
The first witness at the Hutton inquiry was Terence Taylor, a longtime friend of the dead scientist who had worked with Mr. Kelly as a weapons inspector in Iraq. Mr. Taylor described Mr. Kelly as an internationally respected weapons expert who had helped expose Iraq's secret germ warfare program in the 1990s. He said they last talked just four days before Mr. Kelly's death, and the scientist seemed to be in a normal state of mind.
The next witness was Richard Hatfield, personnel director of the Ministry of Defense, where Mr. Kelly worked. He said Mr. Kelly was Britain's foremost expert on chemical and biological weapons, and as such he was authorized to brief journalists on technical aspects of Iraq's weapons program.
However, Mr. Hatfield said Mr. Kelly had no permission to speak on controversial political and intelligence matters, such as those contained in the BBC story. Mr. Hatfield said the dead scientist must have come to realize that he had been indiscrete in his contacts with BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan.
It was Mr. Gilligan who in May reported that Mr. Blair's office had exaggerated Iraq's threat by claiming in a document issued the previous September that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons on just 45 minutes notice. According to Mr. Gilligan, a key Blair adviser had overruled the objections of British intelligence chiefs by inserting the 45-minute claim in the document. The adviser, Alastair Campbell, emphatically denies the Gilligan report. Judge Hutton plans to call Mr. Gilligan to his inquiry on Tuesday.
Mr. Blair himself plans to testify at some point to the Hutton inquiry, which is expected to continue for at least two months.