Did Blair Get Off Too Lightly?

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While President Bush struggled with his problems related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced his own, related test. An official inquiry into the suicide last year of government weapons expert David Kelly had produced widespread expectations that some blame would attach to the Prime Minister, perhaps enough to unseat him. On the one hand, Blair and his government were comprehensively cleared by the inquiry's report. On the other, the exoneration was so total that it may create problems for Blair by leaving his detractors unmoved. One poll showed that 50% of the British public was unconvinced by the verdict. Another showed that only 10% of the public trusted the government to tell the truth.

In the report, Lord Hutton, the Establishment judge whom Blair chose to head the probe, chided Kelly for leaking to reporters his disquiet that the government had oversold evidence of Iraq's WMD, giving a different slant to his bosses and parliamentary committees and then despairing as he realized his dissembling would be revealed. But Hutton saved most of his fire for BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan for making "very grave" and "unfounded" charges in a live radio broadcast last May after he met Kelly. Gilligan reported that the government "probably knew" that a central claim in its dossier on Iraqi WMD — that some were deployable in 45 minutes — was false when the claim was inserted. Testimony to Hutton showed clearly that senior spies were responsible for originating and approving the 45-minute claim and believed it to be true. Hutton condemned the BBC's circle-the-wagons response after the government blasted Gilligan's story. The BBC's chairman, its director-general and Gilligan resigned, though they took shots at Hutton's report and comfort from a wide variety of commentators who called it a whitewash. The acting BBC management announced a review of editorial controls and tried to calm employees who staged protest strikes.

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More controversial than Hutton's verdict on the BBC was his conclusion that the government had no "dishonorable, underhand or duplicitous" plot to reveal Kelly's name to reporters once Kelly had told his bosses at the Ministry of Defense that he had met Gilligan but had not said all the things the reporter had broadcast. Yet the diary of Blair's communications director, Alastair Campbell, shows that he was obsessed with outing Kelly, sure that this would "f___ Gilligan." Hutton focused instead on the worry of some officials that if they concealed that a civil servant had come forward to criticize the WMD dossier, they would later be accused of a cover-up. Instead of acknowledging that spin doctoring as well as decent motives could have fueled Kelly's outing, which led to his suicide, Hutton gave the government every benefit of every doubt.

Blair ended the week eager to "move on," a senior aide said. But those missing WMD will not leave him alone. Now that Hutton has pronounced the WMD dossier an honest mistake, pressure is growing, as it is in Washington, to investigate why it occurred. Blair rejects that idea. All the same, the BBC bosses had to quit because they had led their organization into trouble by trusting information from subordinates that turned out to be wrong. Blair, who accepted their resignations, may yet have to contemplate their example.