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British Journalist Defends Report about Exaggerated Iraq Threat - 2003-08-12


A British journalist has given a detailed defense of his controversial story that Prime Minister Tony Blair's office exaggerated Iraq's weapons threat before the war. The reporter, Andrew Gilligan, testified at a special inquiry into the death of a British weapons scientist.

The British Broadcasting Corporation reporter Andrew Gilligan was the star witness at the inquiry led by Senior Judge Brian Hutton.

Mr. Gilligan has been swept up in controversy since he aired a report on May 29 that accused the Blair government of misusing intelligence data to portray Iraq as a greater threat than it was. He told the Hutton inquiry his information was based on a May 22 interview with British weapons scientist David Kelly, who had worked as a U.N. arms inspector in Iraq.

Prime Minister Blair ordered the Hutton inquiry following Mr. Kelly's apparent suicide last month. The scientist was found in a field with his wrist slit, after government officials identified him as Mr. Gilligan's source.

At his testimony, Mr. Gilligan gave an account of the meeting he had with Mr. Kelly seven days before the story was broadcast.

Mr. Gilligan said Mr. Kelly told him the government had gone against the wishes of the intelligence community by highlighting a claim in a pre-war document that Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes. He said Mr. Kelly considered the information unreliable because it had come from only one Iraqi source.

Mr. Gilligan said he asked Mr. Kelly who had insisted on playing up the 45-minute claim and the scientist said it was Alastair Campbell, Mr. Blair's communications adviser. Mr. Campbell has denied the allegation, and several government officials told the inquiry Monday that Mr. Campbell had not pushed for the 45-minute claim to be included.

Mr. Blair also insisted his government did not exaggerate the Iraqi threat. And Mr. Kelly testified before his death that he had not provided information for the Gilligan report.

The Hutton inquiry has also received an internal memo from a BBC editor saying the Gilligan story had been "marred by flawed reporting" and the "loose use of language."

But with Mr. Blair's poll numbers down, the political opposition has seized on the Gilligan testimony to claim the government is in trouble.

Conservative Party lawmaker Richard Ottaway told British television he wants to know to what extent Mr. Blair authorized any alleged deception by his Number 10 Downing Street office.

"What is crystal clear in my view is that the BBC did not exaggerate the case. It did report its sources accurately and the consequences on that for Number 10 are, in my view, very serious indeed," Mr. Ottaway said.

The prime minister is vacationing in the Caribbean, but he will get a chance to address those questions when he makes an appearance at the Hutton inquiry at a date to be announced.