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British Defense Secretary Testifies in Inquiry into Death of Weapons Expert - 2003-08-27

Fighting for his political future, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon took the witness stand Wednesday in the inquest into the death of a weapons expert linked to a controversial report on Iraq's pre-war weapons program.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, the first cabinet minister to appear before the powerful inquiry, insisted that his department had no problem with a government document that claimed Iraq was capable of launching weapons of mass destruction on 45 minutes' notice.

Mr. Hoon said he spoke just once with Dr. David Kelly, the weapons expert who apparently committed suicide only days after he testified before a committee about the controversial document.

The defense secretary said that there was no conspiracy to name Dr. Kelly publicly. It was his department's press office that confirmed that Dr. Kelly was the adviser who had told his bosses that he had talked about the document with a reporter from the BBC.

It was a BBC story that initially sparked this firestorm that has catapulted Prime Minister Blair's government into perhaps its most serious crisis since it took power six years ago.

Mr. Hoon said he was not aware that details about Dr. Kelly were being revealed at a media briefing held by officials working for Mr. Blair.

The defense secretary also went against the advice of the department's chief civil servant in recommending that Dr. Kelly appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee that was looking into the matter, an appearance the scientist made in the week before his death.

Mr. Hoon said his decision was done in consultation with the prime minister's office.

There is intense speculation in the British press that Geoff Hoon may be the one to take the blame for Mr. Blair's government in the controversy over the document.

The prime minister himself is to take the stand on Thursday. The inquest already has shown that a number of Mr. Blair's aides pushed for the government report on Iraq's weapons capabilities to be hardened up in the days before its publication, and it is on this issue that Mr. Blair is likely to face tough questions.

Public opinion polls in Britain show that a majority of those questioned believe the prime minister deceived them in his justifications for going to war, justifications that depended heavily on the weapons document.