Only hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a cheering US Congress that history would forgive the United States and Great Britain for using dubious data to make the case for a preemptive war with Iraq, history was catching up with Blair. And it did not look as if forgiveness was in the offering.
As the man British newspapers describe as George W. Bush's "poodle" was flying from his cheerleader-in-chief appearance before Congress to a meeting in Tokyo, Blair learned of the suspicious death of a British expert on weapons of mass destruction. The dead scientist had been hounded by the prime minister's aides and allies for apparently assisting a BBC investigation into manipulation of intelligence data by the Blair team.
The news of the death, an apparent suicide, has created a crisis for Blair, and perhaps for his partners in Washington. Within minutes after the body was discovered, Washington observers were referring to Dr. David Kelly, the dead scientist, as "the British Vince Foster." That reference to the mysterious death of Clinton White House lawyer Vince Foster, which launched a thousand conspiracy theories that remain fodder for right-wing talk radio hosts in the US, was a wide stretch. Foster's death, while certainly as tragic as Kelly's, was never so closely linked to immediate and internationally significant questions as that of a former United Nations weapons inspector who had become one of the British Ministry of Defense's most highly regarded experts on chemical and biological weapons.
Blair knows full well that there is no debating the somber assessment of London's Daily Telegraph newspaper, which declared Saturday that the prime minister has been "plunged into the biggest crisis of his premiership." Already, the prime minister has conceded that that there will have to be a judicial inquiry and other investigations into the death. The leader of Britain's Conservative opposition to Blair's Labour government has suggested that the parliament may have to be called back into session to examine the matter. Amid mounting speculation that some of Blair's closest aides – including Alastair Campbell, the man charged with doctoring the intelligence data – could be forced to resign, London's Guardian newspaper declared: "Tony Blair's government was last night shaken to its foundations by the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelly." How shaky are the foundations? Blair has been forced to personally answer questions from reporters about whether he has "blood on (his) hands" and whether he sould resign. Glenda Jackson, a member of Blair's Labour party majority in the Parliament and a former Blair Cabinet minister, called on Saturday for Blair, Campbell and the Minister of State for Defence to step down. Descibing the actions of the Blair government in the weeks before Kelly's death as "an absolutely shameful, shameful episode," Jackson said, "There should be resignations and they should come as quickly as possible."
The shock waves that have caused the foundations of Blair's government to shake are being felt in Washington. Bush Administration aides who had hoped Blair's appearance before Congress would silence at least some of the questioning about the American president's use of dubious British intelligence to make a "case" for war with Iraq, suddenly found themselves lashed to a British leader whose credibility was sinking by the hour.
Because the Bush Administration relied so heavily on dossiers developed by Blair's spin doctors – even after their dubious claims were challenged by American intelligence agencies – Blair's crisis could well become Bush's crisis. After all, Bush's poll numbers have been dropping in recent days as media and Congressional attention has focused on his use of discredited information about Iraq's supposed efforts to obtain uranium in Africa. According to Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, Bush "is being seen for the first time in his presidency as a president under fire." And he is under fire, at least in part, because of his decision to build his case for war with Iraq on British intelligence data that US intelligence agencies had rejected as unsound. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in his State of the Union address.
Blair's trip to Washington was supposed to make Congress more comfortable with Bush's decision to treat claims from the British prime minister's spin doctors more seriously than information from US intelligence agencies. With questions about Blair's credibility growing in Britain, Bush and his aides are going to have a much harder time quelling the controversy in the US.
Things could get even tougher for the Bush camp, as details of the British controversy are revealed. Kelly came into the limelight during an investigation of whether Blair aides had inserted into the introduction of a September, 2002, dossier a questionable claim that the Iraqi military was capable of launching weapons of mass destruction "within 45 minutes."
On September 28, 2002, in a radio address to the American people that President Bush used to make the case for Congressional authorization of the use of force against Iraq, he said, "The danger to our country is grave and it is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given."
Last week, Hans Blix, the former head of United Nations weapons inspections team, said the British government – and, by extension, Bush -- made a "fundamental mistake" when it claimed the Iraqis could deploy weapons of mass destruction so quickly. And, earlier this month, a British parliamentary committee chided Blair aides for giving "undue prominence" to the claim in their dossier on Iraqi threats.
The unraveling of another claim made by Bush in his arguments for war with Iraq points to the challenge the administration faces because of its high level of reliance on Blair's dossiers. As Blair is questioned, questioning of Bush is sure to follow. Indeed, while British papers refer to Blair as Bush's "poodle," it appears that the British prime minister may have been the master when it came to peddling questionable information.
Kelly's death and the controversy that has arisen should serve as a cautionary tale for defenders of the Bush Administration who, in their desperation to protect the president from questioning, have mimicked many of the worst excesses of what now appears to have been an out-of-control Blair team. It is still common for Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators to explode with anger when anyone -- especially a vteran intelligence analyst or diplomat -- expresses concern about whether the administration misled the country regarding threats posed by Iraq. GOP majorities in the House and Senate continue to block a full-scale investigation of the use -- or misuse -- of intelligence data by the Administration. And there are still those who question the patriotism of Americans who seek to get to the bottom of the question of whether American really needed to go to war when it did.
The Blair government's determination to prevent and punish this sort of questioning led it into the current crisis.
In recent weeks, Blair's government has conducted a full-scale witchhunt with the goal of discrediting top journalists – and their sources in the British government – who have produced reports on the manipulation of information regarding the supposed threat posed by Iraq on the eve of the US-led attack on that country. After the BBC's respected defense correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, revealed that the Blair's aides had "sexed up" information from the intelligence community, the Blair team unleashed a fierce assault on the BBC and Gilligan. After Kelly acknowledged he had spoken with Gilligan, the top scientist faced an equally fierce assault from Blair's spin doctors and their minions. Just this week, Kelly was subjected to a public grilling by members of parliament loyal to Blair, in an attempt to get the scientist to cast doubt on the BBC reports for which it now appears he may have been one of several high-ranking sources.
The Blair government's efforts to discredit the BBC, Kelly and any other institution or individual willing to question the prime minister's peddling of dubious data have been broadly referred to in Britain as a vendetta. After Kelly's body was discovered, the Guardian referred to him in a headline as "The Vendetta's Victim."