The death of weapons expert and UN inspector Dr David Kelly in the summer of 2003 is one of the Iraq War’s most enduring mysteries. While the case was officially ruled a suicide, this conclusion was reached by an informal government inquiry which the Blair government used to replace the normal, legal inquest procedure. In this extended episode I examine the Kelly case, talking with David Halpin, a retired surgeon who has been integral to the struggle for a proper investigation of Kelly’s death. I also analyse how the theory that Kelly was assassinated has been encouraged by state-sponsored TV spy fiction, and speculate as to why this is.
As most of you are no doubt aware, Dr David Kelly was a British weapons expert and UN inspector who died on the night of July 17th 2003, only months after the invasion of Iraq. The Hutton Inquiry was set up to examine the circumstances surrounding his death, and concluded he had killed himself after being outed as the source for controversial BBC report by Andrew Gilligan.
I do not propose to fully re-investigate Kelly’s death, because I’m no expert. I remember when it happened and most of the people I knew seemed sceptical of the suicide story, and were willing to consider that someone had assassinated him for political reasons. Obviously, I have no qualms about that hypothesis, I think it’s entirely possible, even likely. But if you want a fuller picture of the story, the evidence, the problems with the official verdict, I can thoroughly recommend the books by Norman Baker, the former Liberal MP, and more recently by investigative journalist Miles Goslett. I have drawn heavily on these books in trying to understand what’s at stake in this case.
I am very biased. This is one of the reasons I’m not going to attempt any kind of objective study of the evidence. The Iraq War was a key event in getting me engaged with politics – I protested in London in the weeks before the war, I knew that the government was pushing through a political decision that had nothing to do with security. I wrote quite extensively about the production of the first dossier, in September 2002, in my book on the 7/7 London bombings. Iraq is what me hate the Blair government, and that hate is very much still alive today. That man should have been put on trial a long time ago.
Nonetheless, the basic physical evidence in the case is extremely problematic. Kelly died of an alleged suicide, cutting into his wrist and severing a minor blood vessel while also swallowing up to 29 pills. Officially, he did so sometime in the afternoon or night of July 17th, having left his house for a walk that afternoon. His family waited several hours before calling the police, who started a search. They sent up a helicopter with thermal imaging which flew over the area where Kelly’s body should have been, but they didn’t see anything.
The following morning a pair of volunteer searchers found his body, and called the police. They and the paramedics agree that there was very little blood at the scene, which was in the midst of a small wooded area on top of Harrowdown Hill. The searchers say they found him slumped against a tree, but the paramedics who arrived some time later say he was lying on the ground, far enough away from the tree that you could walk around him. There were some police who were at the scene in between the searchers and the paramedics. Primarily, this was a detective named DC Coe who claims he never touched the body, never even got closer than a few feet, and another policeman called Shields. However, in the 20-30 minutes Coe was there he apparently took very few notes and failed to notice what Kelly was wearing and other basic details. There also appears to have been a third policeman there at this time, who has never been identified.
An inquest was formed to examine what had caused his death, but it was quickly shut down. Within a couple of hours of the body being found the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, had spoken to Blair, who was on a plane between the US and Japan. They decided to replace the inquest with an inquiry, and even recruited Lord Hutton to lead it, all on the morning that Kelly’s body was found. The reason given was that this was an extremely unusual case, whereby a highly respected government scientist with top-level security clearance had died, shortly after being exposed as the source for a news story.
Who was David Kelly?
But let’s step back for a moment. Kelly was part of the UN weapons inspection team, had visited Iraq dozens of times, was a world-renowned expert on biological warfare. He was technically employed by the Foreign Office but was on loan to the Ministry of Defence. Kelly believed that Iraq had some Weapons of Mass Destruction, but was among those who criticised the 2002 dossiers. He was especially opposed to the 45 minute claim – the idea that Iraqi forces could launch a chemical or biological attack on the West within 45 minutes of getting the order. In reality, the intelligence containing the 45 minute number related to battlefield weapons within Iraq, not ballistic weapons that could be launched at the West.
After the ground war had finished, at least the first phase of it, Kelly was part of the team who went back into Iraq to look for evidence of WMD. On May 19th he was prevented from entering Iraq through Kuwait, supposedly due to some issue with his paperwork. According to his daughter he was arrested, searched, had his phone taken and was then confined to a hotel before being deported. Why did this happen? A quick phone call to the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence could have confirmed who he was and what he was doing, especially given the trust that he had earned through years of helping expose and shut down biological and chemical weapons facilities.
A couple of days after his deportation back to the UK, he met with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan at a hotel in London. Gilligan asked him about the failure to find any WMD in Iraq, and Kelly (who had been cleared to give off the record briefings to journalists) told him about the problems with the 45 minute claim, as well as criticising the pre-war intelligence dossiers more broadly. A week later the BBC broadcast a report saying the dossier had been ‘sexed up’ and that Blair’s chief spin doctor Alistair Campbell had written the 45 minute claim into the document.
All hell broke loose, with the government issuing denials and demanding the BBC retract the story and apologise. For his part, David Kelly knew that he was one of Gilligan’s sources but believed he hadn’t said anything about Campbell or made some of the other more headline-grabbing statements cited in the report. Kelly came forward and told his bosses at the Ministry of Defence about his meeting with Gilligan, but that he believed he wasn’t the only source for the story or had been misquoted and misrepresented.
In the midst of all the controversy, Kelly went to Iraq in early June as part of an inspection team looking at alleged mobile weapons labs. The Hutton report later established that it was Kelly who the Guardian was quoting in their report saying that these weren’t weapons labs at all. ‘They are not mobile germ warfare laboratories. You could not use them for making biological weapons. They do not even look like them. They are exactly what the Iraqis said they were – facilities for the production of hydrogen gas to fill balloons.’
After some dithering, the Blair government apparently decided to leak Kelly’s identity to put all the focus on him, rather than on them. The Ministry of Defence announced that an employee had come forward, giving enough details that journalists soon figured out who it was. According to Miles Goslett’s research, when Kelly first got news that he was going to be named in the media his wife went down to the South-West of England, to get away from everything, but Kelly himself was still at his home in Oxfordshire for at least that evening. Witnesses place him at his local pub that night playing cribbage, but Kelly’s wife told the Hutton inquiry they travelled down to Cornwall together. The witnesses from the pub were never called before the inquiry, like many other relevant witnesses.
In early July Kelly was called before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and then the Intelligence and Security Committee. He was asked about his contact with another journalist, and appears to have lied, denying that he was the source for her somewhat similar story. It eventually emerged, some time later, that she had recorded the conversation and that Kelly was her source. These committee appearances were on July 15th and July 16th.
On the morning of the 17th he answered emails and got on with his work, telling people he felt that the worst was behind him and that he would be back in Baghdad soon. He also emailed his friend the American author Judith Miller, talking about ‘many dark actors playing games’. Shortly after 3pm he went out for a walk but never came back. Sometime that night he supposedly swallowed nearly 30 coproxamol tablets, despite having an aversion to swallowing pills and only having a small bottle of water with him. He then used an old knife he’d had since he was a boy to cut through the ulnar artery in his left wrist, even though his right arm was very weak due to an injury he’d suffered some years earlier.
If this was a suicide then it makes no sense to me. If he was going to kill himself then why wait several hours? Harrowdown Hill is close to his home, maybe a mile or two, so where was he in the hours in between leaving his house at 3pm and killing himself much later that night? Why would someone with an intimate knowledge of human anatomy and biology, and especially of ways to kill people, kill himself in such a crude way?
David Halpin on David Kelly
To help get my head around all these issues and understand some of the alternative theories about what happened, I spoke to retired orthopaedic surgeon David Halpin, who was integral to the various challenges to the government over their treatment of the Kelly affair. He has also written extensively on the case, and wrote a lengthy opinion arguing against the idea that this was a death caused by Kelly slashing his own wrist. This was signed by several medical professionals and others involved in trying to push the government to re-open the inquest and respect the legal process that should have taken place.
The full interview is available to Patreon subscribers, and we discuss not only the forensic science aspects of the case but also David’s hypotheses about what might have really happened. It’s about an hour long in total, so I’m going to play you a couple of segments. First, regarding the two supposed causes of death – the pills, and the wounds to Kelly’s wrist.
A bit later in the conversation we got into the legal problems, how there should have been a full inquest with the ability to call witnesses and get them to testify under oath, and how and why that never happened and instead we got the Hutton inquiry.
The full interview is over an hour long so I didn’t want to play the whole thing but you can listen to it on Patreon and it is a very enjoyable and in-depth conversation, I will have to speak to David again because he knows a lot about dodgy coroners and the failings of the inquest system. I am hoping to put together an episode on the ‘spy in a bag’ Gareth Williams, who David told me about. I also thoroughly recommend David’s articles on the Kelly investigation, which you can find on his website.
Spy Fiction and the David Kelly Affair
After the Hutton Inquiry report was published, in January 2004, the head of the BBC resigned along with Andrew Gilligan and others involved in their largely correct but heavily criticised news story. Dyke in particular gave a number of quite explicit interviews about the BBC and its relationship with the government, before taking a job on the board of directors at Manchester United.
Since then the BBC has, it seems, given up on being adversarial towards the government. I cannot remember the last time they made a hard-hitting piece about what the government is doing in the here and now. Hutton was the end of the BBC maintaining any real pretence at independence.
So it is interesting that towards the end of 2004 they broadcast an episode of Spooks which is clearly a reference to the David Kelly Affair. It focuses on a British scientist, a biological warfare expert, who is planning to sell his research to North Korea. Two spies are sent to get on a ferry that the scientist is taking to Norway to meet the fixer for the deal. They are tasked with talking him out of it, warning him off. It emerges that the deal is already done, so the mission changes to assassinating the scientist while the ship is in international waters.
Curiously, they kill the scientist by injecting him with an overdose of insulin, which directly parallels some people’s theories that Kelly was injected with a poison and the wounds to his wrist covered this up, as well as making it look like suicide.
This theory was one of those mentioned on the BBC’s Conspiracy Files episode on Kelly, which spends 40 minutes discussing various evidence suggesting or proving it wasn’t suicide, before saying what really matters is Kelly’s mindset, and spending the last 10 minutes using psychological manipulation to make you think he was suicidally depressed. It is one of the most shameful pieces of TV ever produced, as are most of the episodes in that series, but it does include this:
Question: were the BBC taking a little revenge on the government by endorsing conspiracy theories about David Kelly? It’s definitely possible. This is not the first time that someone is killed in a Spooks episode, but it is the first time we see one of the main characters commit an state-sanctioned assassination. There are also two dialogues in this episode that not only make it clear that the British state assassinates people, but also presents the assassin’s emotional response in a very realistic way.
And then later in the episode, when Danny is speaking to his supervisor about what it’s like to kill someone:
This is no superficial treatment, this episode very much sells you on the idea that these characters that you know and love and trust – just like you might trust the real MI5 – are capable of murder. While you might not make the connection with Kelly – indeed, it seems hardly anyone picked up on that – it makes the idea that Kelly might have been killed by British intelligence seem plausible. Given that the number 1 objection to that theory is that British intelligence agents don’t have a license to kill, the reality is that they do. They have assassinated people, I’m sure they will again. So this episode goes beyond merely advocating a conspiracy theory – it is a psychological assault on the principal rejection of that conspiracy theory. I interpret this as the BBC’s revenge on the government, though that would be bizarre given that Spooks was usually a vehicle for pro-government propaganda.
Of course, there’s another way to look at this. If MI5 and MI6 were using Spooks to promote ideas and memes and narratives that were useful to them – as I contend they were – then were they sending a message to the central government about who is really in charge? After all, the security services were exposed in the wake of Iraq’s WMD proving to be non-existent, they were implicated in the crime just as much as Blair and Campbell and the rest. Were they reminding the government that they can assassinate people if they deem them a threat?
Which brings us neatly onto the other major entertainment propaganda coverage of the David Kelly Affair – Deep State. This new British spy drama broadcast beginning in April this year in the UK, and then in June in the US, just in time for the 15th anniversary of Kelly’s death. It tells the story of a retired MI6 agent played by Mark Strong, who is drawn back into the game for one final mission. His wife realises that he is lying to her about what he’s doing so she investigates, and find a USB drive in a safe deposit box containing his video confession:
While they’ve changed the name, it is absolutely clear they are talking about David Kelly and saying he was murdered by an MI6 agent. As the series progresses it emerges that there is a group called The Section, which is some kind of joint CIA-MI6 black ops unit. The CIA supervisor, a blonde woman not unlike every other female CIA agent on TV, is also part of the Deep State – a private corporate network that has infiltrated Western intelligence. We find out that the government scientist was murdered by this section, or at least by MI6 on behalf of the CIA. The show repeatedly plays up the resentment the British supposedly feel towards our American cousins, and the fucked-up nature of the ‘Special Relationship’. This is also a recurring theme in Spooks.
Without spoiling too much, in the penultimate episode of Deep State the Mark Strong character reveals all to his wife:
I’m sure you can see why I like Deep State – like Homeland, it’s a more honest look at the world of espionage and deep politics. I’m also sure you can see they are talking about the David Kelly murder.
I noticed while watching this first season the prominent use of footage of CIA headquarters – one of the tell-tale signs that a project has approached the CIA for production assistance. I went looking, and found an interview with the creator and showrunner Matthew Parkhill, where he talked about rewriting the show during production in order to keep up with current news events. So far, so Homeland.
Then I came across another interview where he said, “I came across this idea of an unelected government that exists irrespective of elections and I sat down with ex-MI6 analysts to research the show. Some things in the show are based on real-life incidents.” Similarly Mark Strong said, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist but with all the stuff that’s going on in the news at the moment I think of course, the deep state does exist.”
So was David Kelly murdered not by British or American intelligence, but by a deep state network comprising private individuals and people within the intelligence agencies? Or does someone want us to believe that because it conveniently shifts attention away from them? Why are the CIA and former MI6 officers helping to make this TV show? What’s in it for them?
Naturally, I don’t have solid answers to these questions, but I will say that for a long time I wondered if the CIA, or a network that is primarily CIA rather than MI6, were behind events such as David Kelly’s death and the London bombings. It is curious that both of these TV shows were produced with the help of British and American intelligence, both play up the divisions between the two countries yet both also endorse the idea of a transnational network crossing that divide and operating on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the Gladio model, of black operations carried out not by people in one specific agency, but through interagency committees and networks.
As I said at the top, I am biased, but I don’t believe David Kelly killed himself. The case that he did so is flimsy and would involve some very bizarre goings-on at the scene itself. It is all but certain this was not an accident, which means someone murdered him. However, I do agree with Norman Baker that there’s no obvious motive for the Blair government to order this, so if it was a Western state then it was likely without Blair himself being part of the loop. Just as with 7/7, he did his role in covering it up afterwards, but I’m not convinced he was directly involved in the crime itself.
My opinion is that this is a murder than will likely never be solved, because we would have to know what happened between 3pm when he left his home and 9 am the next morning when his body was found. Like with 7/7, we would have to know what happened to the four alleged bombers in between the snippets of CCTV we’ve been shown. That evidence, if it ever existed, has almost certainly now been destroyed. Nonetheless, the fact that something like a quarter of the population don’t believe the official story, and the fact that this scandal seriously damaged the Blair government and contributed to that man’s pretty terrible reputation, is cause for happiness and hope. While David Kelly is increasingly seen as a noble man who was murdered for telling the truth, Blair cannot show his face in his home country, he is so reviled. And that is how it should be.