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March 21, 2005

The Government Inspector - Peter Kosminsky

Posted by Anthony Glees

The Government Inspector
Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky
Channel 4, 17th March 2005

Anthony Glees - Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies [BCISS] and the co-author of Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry - reviews The Government Inspector, Peter Kosminsky's drama about David Kelly's suicide and the events leading up to the Hutton Inquiry.

Peter Kosminsky's dramatisation of the Kelly affair was a genuinely impressive piece of TV reconstruction. Mark Rylance (Kelly) was an outstanding performer and the way in which the various slices of evidence were pasted together was, I thought, entirely convincing (though one doubts whether the Americans really destroyed the records of Saddam's regime for their own political purposes).

This was, however, a play and not a documentary and more than anything else, it was composed to be the tragedy of an individual. In fact, of course, the tragedy of David Kelly (and it was a tragedy) was the tragedy of a grossly malfunctioning political system. It was not coincidental that that Kelly was the only proper character in the piece, and that everyone else, especially the politicians, were just caricatures. Kosminksy was trying to coax us into Kelly's mind and his world view. His Kelly was thoughtful but brooding and lugubrious, increasingly insulating himself from the squads of political and media bullies with whom he was obliged to work. His tragedy was that he defeated by people far stronger than he. Ultimately it was the bullies in government and the media who would destroy him.

One small detail illuminates the point nicely. After Kelly's death, Sir Richard Dearlove, still C/SIS, told Lord Hutton that Kelly had behaved disgracefully in speaking to journalists, breaking his duty of confidentiality. It was hard not to concur (I did so myself at the time). But Dearlove's indictment was predicated on the assumption that Kelly was not permitted to speak to the media and that Andrew Gilligan's account of Kelly's opinions was accurate.

Both were wrong. Kelly's contract with the MOD formally obliged him to speak to journalists. What is more, there is every reason to believe that Gilligan did not accurately reproduce Kelly's thoughts. Certainly, Kelly owed a duty of confidentiality in respect of state secrets but it is not clear that he ever broke it. That he appeared to have done so lay as much in the BBC's faulty descriptor of himself (as an intelligence officer from the JIC) as in his not unjustified anxiety about the Downing Street media machine. Kelly was not the traitor Dearlove claimed him to be. But Kelly could do nothing: it was not possible to take on the SIS chief, one of the most powerful people inside the government, and the BBC's heavies at the same time. The latter were indeed brutal - as we shall see, even today neither Gilligan nor Greg Dyke think they acted wrongly and, tellingly, Kosminsky's play was shown on Channel 4 rather than where it belonged – on the BBC. The desperate impossibility of Kelly's position was blindingly obvious to him – and to all of us.

The fundamental problem with the play – and the affair itself – is that the story of David Kelly is not actually about an individual but about the condition of British politics where a British Prime Minister has immense power and a determination not to be worsted by a hostile press. At this higher level Kosminsky's play made no impact at all (and, in consequence, it seemed to go on for at least an hour too long). We cannot know, of course, why (or how) Kelly decided to kill himself (indeed I, for one, am sceptical that he killed himself in the manner described by the Oxfordshire Coroner). Kelly's professional soulmate, Dr Olivia Bosch (who was not given a part in the play – one wonders why) may have an important line on this.

At its core, the essence of the public tragedy of David Kelly is that he became a participant-observer in the worst single failure of British intelligence. We should not forget that in September 2002 the British Parliament and people were persuaded – in the words of a senior intelligence official:

to undertake a war of aggression against a sovereign state on the basis of a wholly inaccurate intelligence assessment.
This is as bad as it gets in the world of intelligence. Certainly, it had been a serious mistake to fail to predict the Ardennes offensive in late 1944, or the invasion of the Falklands in 1982. But these two errors consisted of British intelligence missing things that could have been spotted had they looked hard enough. The failure in the case of Iraq was to look very hard - and then discover things that were not there. It will take many years and a radical reform of British intelligence if public trust is to be restored in its work, as the Prime Minister is now discovering in his attempts to convince British public opinion that detention without trial is necessary because the intelligence and security agencies are telling him so. The Kelly affairs is still unresolved business.

Precisely because the 'supporting cast' (in the 'Kelly-eye-view' of things) – namely Blair and Campbell, Scarlett and Dearlove, Gilligan and Sambrook – were mere sketches in the play, this core theme was never examined. Nick Rufford, in the Sunday Times [13th March, 2005], has made what seems like this very point, arguing that The Government Inspector did not work because it should have focussed on 'why we went to war'. But what he really means by this is that Kosminsky should have whitewashed Gilligan and the BBC. Rufford insists:

Gilligan was largely right. Saddam had no arsenal of biological and chemical agents: the dossier was misleading.
Rufford concedes that:
Gilligan made an error in one early morning broadcast.
But he dismisses its signficance:
So what? Woodward and Bernstein made blunders during the Watergate investigations…all good journalists make mistakes sooner or later….
This parrots the repugnant Rod Liddle-Greg Dyke line, namely that Gilligan got 'the real story right'. As Liddle put it in the Sunday Times [11th July, 2004]: Gilligan had
made a slip…in just one of his eighteen broadcasts [on 29 May 2003] in attributing to Kelly a belief he had not expressed.
This 'slip' was the claim that 10 Downing Street had known the '45 minute claim' was wrong. Nonetheless, Liddle argues, we should value Gilligan as a true media hero and 'civic journalist'. Dyke's self-serving memoirs echo this point.

It is, of course, complete nonsense. Gilligan did not make just one small mistake. One hopes the editor of the Sunday Times will speak to his journalists about their comments. For them to regard an entire catalogue of errors as a 'slip' speaks volumes about the newspaper. As is set out in detail in my and Philip H. J. Davies' book Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry and is also shown in the annexe at the end of this review, Gilligan made many 'mistakes' (to put it at its mildest) and did not get the story right (as Dyke's successor accepted). It is bad enough that the Government should spin. When journalists start spinning their own spin, we are in serious trouble.

Somehow, Gilligan has managed to gain a reputation for himself as the person who first drew attention to the fact that WMD were not discovered in Iraq. In reality, by the end of May 2003, when Gilligan exploited it, the absence of WMD in Iraq was causing widespread concern in the UK and the US, not least for David Kelly. As for his being a 'civic journalist' his awful shopping of Kelly to the Foreign Affairs Committee surely tells us all we need to know about his professional ethics in respect of his sources.

Although Rufford accuses Kosminsky of being unfair towards Gilligan, this seems hardly justified. It is true that Gilligan is shown doctoring his Psion file containing his notes on his interview with Kelly. We do not know that this took place, and Gilligan has denied it. But Lord Hutton did establish that the document in question was revisited by Gilligan some time after it had been written up. Furthermore, we do know what Kelly told Susan Watts and since what Gilligan claimed Kelly had told him was in every important sense quite different from Watt's taped record, we may be allowed to conclude that Gilligan did doctor the evidence. Why would Kelly have made it clear to Watts that he was not on the JIC, or an SIS officer, that he did believe Saddam had WMD and say the exact reverse to Gilligan?

It has been said that to criticize Gilligan for implying that Kelly was a secret intelligence officer (when formally he was simply a member of the intelligence community consulted by secret intelligence) is splitting hairs. However the distinction matters because even if Kelly had been a full time member of the Defence Intelligence Staff, and therefore a member of one of the UK's intelligence agencies, he would still not necessarily have been privy to what the JIC was determining, still less have known about any SIS source the SIS wished to keep secret from him. We should not forget that even John Scarlett as JIC Chair, and a former SIS director, did not, at any time, know the precise identity of the SIS sources that Dearlove was selling to the JIC and the Prime Minister so strongly. In short, Gilligan had to make Kelly an officer if his objections to the dossier were not to be disqualified at once by the riposte that Kelly was not in any position to make judgements about secret intelligence inputs into it (which was the case in this particular instance as Kelly told Susan Watts).

Even in terms of his dramatic characterization, Kosminsky treats Gilligan with some respect. In real life, as even his friends would attest, Gilligan is a shambling, disorganised man. In the play, he is a sharp dresser and highly focussed. The other players receive the same kind treatment. Kosminsky indicates, undoubtedly correctly, that Campbell was drunk on his own power, and Blair so taken with the bigger picture that he had no interest in any detailed understanding of the intelligence issues set before him (significantly, Blair had no idea who Kelly was). Both are depicted as bland young men in suits. The pretend Geoff Hoon looks truly embarrassed by a plea from Kelly for more evidence about WMD at one stage, although one suspects the real one would have told him to boil his head.

And whoever was speaking to Kosminsky about Sir Richard Dearlove was plainly someone with knowledge about the latter's power. In the play, Dearlove is shown threatening the Government over the apparent claim by Dr John Reid that SIS officers are conspiring against the Government (in fact the allegation came from Gilligan and John Humphrys and, foolishly, was swallowed hook line and sinker by the unfortunate Reid). Dearlove's 'warning' that SIS is not going to be 'lined up' by the Government may have been implied rather than stated. However there seems little doubt in intelligence circles today that Dearlove, despite his obvious charm and skill, would have been sacked had he not been about to retire because he had used his talents to oversell to a gullible Prime Minister evidence which was doubtful, perhaps in the extreme.

Before deciding to kill himself, Kosminsky's Kelly tells his wife that the only reason the Government is going for Gilligan is because it cannot find WMD and wants to distract voters from its failure. It is, of course, a failure in which he played a part (although unlike the SIS's 'sources' he never found things that were not there). Kelly made at least one other major error glossed over by the playwright: in questioning Iraqi scientific contacts about WMD there whilst Saddam still ruled, Kelly was in effect exposing them to torture and possible death, showing scant disregard for his informers in a way in which no real intelligence professional ever would.

We live in a non-judgemental environment but the Kelly affairs forces us to make some judgements. For Kosminksy and for Kelly suicide was a reasonable exit strategy. For us it cannot be so. As a personal tragedy we cannot ignore the terrible suffering and anguish it must still be causing his widow and her family. As a public strategy the death of an individual does not work either. Many reputations were lost in the Kelly affair. The BBC has been required to undergo radical change in order to retain its grip on the licence fee. However the Today programme struggles now to make a news impact and is becoming more and more of an anodyne radio magazine. British intelligence is currently undergoing some reform but it is doubtful whether it will go far enough. As for the Government, trust in the judgement of Tony Blair has suffered a grievous blow – not because the war against Iraq was wrong but because he failed to understand the limitations of intelligence and used it wrongly with serious consequences.

Everyone knows that the world of politics and the media is inhabited by bullies. It goes with the territory and there is no space for shrinking violets. In supping with the Government or the BBC's managers, one should always use a big spoon. However, even if Kelly's personal tragedy ended in darkness, his public tragedy may well lead to illumination. Hutton's and Butler's role in providing us with evidence, and Kosminksy's part in dramatising it are real steps forward. We are fortunate that Blair was not deposed by the Today programme, still less by a non-existent junta of spooks, but lives on to face his real judges in the only acceptable way – in a General Election.

Annexe - the Today programme's claims
We should indeed remind ourselves what Gilligan and the Today programme had actually broadcast. Far his making a single mistake early in the morning of 29th May 2003, Gilligan (and the BBC more generally) made a series of headline allegations which ran up to and beyond 4th June. It is true that one of them (that the Government had insisted the 45 minute claim be included even though it knew at the time it was wrong) is now said by Gilligan's supporters to have been an 'error'. In fact, in continuing to insist that the rest of allegations are accurate, Dyke, Liddle and Gilligan plainly believe even today that they should stand.

This is a list of the major allegations made by Andrew Gilligan and John Humphrys on the Today programme. They are direct quotes taken directly from the transcripts of the Today programme.

Andrew Gilligan:

1. The Government probably knew the 45 minute claim was wrong even before it decided to put it in…the draft prepared for Mr Blair by the Intelligence Agencies actually didnt say very much more than was public knowledge already and erm,

2. Downing Street, our source says, ordered a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed up, to be more exciting and ordered more facts to be, er, to be discovered…

3. our source says that dossier as it was finally published made the intelligence services unhappy, erm, because to quote the source he said there was unhappiness because it didn't reflect the considered view they were putting forward, that's a quote from our source and essentially, erm, the 45 minute point was probably the most important thing that was added.

4. The reason it had not been in the original draft was because it only came from one source and most of the other claims were from two and the intelligence services say they don't necessarily believe it was true…the 45 minutes isn't just a detail. It did go to the heart of the government's case that Saddam was a threat…if they knew it was wrong before they actually made the claim, that's perhaps a bit more serious

5. When I asked my intelligence source why Blair misled us all over Saddam's WMD. His response? "One word: Campbell"…adding "it was real information but it was included against our wishes because it wasn't reliable"…the information, which I'm told was dubious, did come from the agencies but they were unhappy about it because they didn't think it should have been in there…what I have been told is that the government knew the claim was questionable even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier.

6. I have spoken to a British official who was involved in the preparation of the dossier who told me, the draft produced by the intelligence services added little…it was transformed to make it sexier. The classic example was the 45 minute claim…It was included [he said] against our [sic] wishes…He added "most people weren't happy with the dossier because it didn't reflect the considered view they were putting forward"

Gilligan intended his listeners to believe that his source was a member of the JIC from a secret intelligence background. This was how he strung his claims together: He had spoken to a "British official involved in preparation of dossier"; he had said the "dossier was produced by intelligence services"; then his source was quoted as saying "it was included against our wishes". The "our" clearly refers back to intelligence services. Finally, Gilligan said his objections were shared by what we inferred had to be other intelligence officers. His source was, therefore, a spokesman for the intelligence service – or so the BBC wanted us to believe. As we shall see, the BBC repeatedly intimated that more than one source had spoken to them.

On 29 May:

BBC news has learned that intelligence officials were not happy with the dossier…Andrew Gilligan reports: "One senior British official has now told the BBC that the original version, produced by the intelligence services added little… But one week before publication, said this official, the dossier was transformed on Downing Street's orders. The 45 minute assertion was one of several claims added against the wishes of the intelligence agencies who said it was from a single source which they didn't necessarily believe"

On 31st May Gilligan said on the Today programme:

1. A senior figure involved in compiling it told this programme two days ago that Downing Street had applied pressure to make it sexier…The Prime Minister and his staff have spent the last two days denying claims that nobody ever made, such as that the material from the dossier was invented, that it came from sources other than the intelligence agencies, and that Downing Street wrote the dossier. They have, however, failed to deny several of the claims which the BBC source did make. There's been no denial of his allegation that the dossier was re-written the week before publication, nor that the line about Iraq's 45 minute deployment of biological weapons was added to the dossier at a late stage…

2. In Britain we've now seen two unprecedented intelligence leaks, directly challenging the Prime Minister.

On 4th June John Humphrys quoted from an interview with Dr John Reid, a senior Cabinet minister, published that morning in The Times. Reid had responded to the suggestion that more than one officer was involved – like many others, perhaps, Reid had believed what the BBC was saying :

John Reid has said that there are rogue elements in the intelligence services out to get the government…these are the rogue elements who presumably spoke to you, Andy?


1. Yes, I think this is extraordinary. It is the kind of thing you find in an airport paperback, and it's being said by a serving cabinet minister.

2. The people [sic] who spoke to me were not rogue elements… I think they speak for others on the subject.

3. the 45 minute threat was given undue prominence at the behest of the Prime Minister or his staff to the disquiet of the intelligence committee

On 4th June Humphrys said:

This is an important day for Tony Blair and his fight to see off the accusation that he exaggerated the threat from Saddam to justify taking this country to war…Last week we revealed on this programme that intelligence sources were accusing the government of doctoring the dossier last September.

Andrew Gilligan was then asked by Humphrys whether there was an SIS plot to oust Blair (the point being that this repeated the suggestion that Gilligan's source lay within SIS) . Gilligan of course knew that Kelly was not in SIS officer but answered:

it is actually a bit simpler than an [SIS] plot…obviously the quotes we used came from a single source but four people over the last six months, in or connected with the intelligence community have expressed concern to me about the misuse of intelligence material by Number 10…that is has actually tried to create a sort of truth where the truth is not quite as clear cut as Downing Street would like…


the quote came from a source, the allegations were based on four different sources...

The BBC now claimed that 'four people' of whom at least some were intelligence officers had expressed concern to Gilligan about the 'misuse of intelligence material'.

Despite its unrelenting protests to the contrary, the BBC had, in fact, been able to judge at the time whether or not Gilligan's claims – based on what Kelly had told him - were true or false. This is because Susan Watts of BBC's Newsnight had taped her conversation with Dr Kelly on 30 May 2003 [Document SJW/1/0037 on the Hutton website]. There is therefore a factual record of what he had actually said. It contradicted Gilligan's account in almost every single respect. Kelly said he was "uneasy" about the "45 minute claim" but insisted it had "not been published against my advice". He also made it clear that he had no firsthand knowledge about it (he had not debriefed the SIS agent who had supplied it) and although he had an opinion about it (which proved correct), his objections were not absolute. He made it clear that he did not much like the dossier because its language had, at times, made certainties out of probabilities and possibilities. He thought the role of Downing Street's Press Office had been damaging. On the other hand he made it plain to Watts that he was "not part of the intelligence community", was certainly not an intelligence officer nor did sit on the JIC (although he had read drafts of the dossier). What is more, he believed firmly that Saddam had WMD. Watts had asked him whether he believed there were WMD in Iraq and he replied: "My own perception is, yes, they have weapons". Questioned whether they constituted a "clear, present and imminent threat", Kelly replied: "yes".

Professor Anthony Glees is Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies and co-author of Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry.

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