- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Not long ago, a low-budget movie about ghosts and goblins, called “The Blair Witch Project,” was a box office success. Now, another Blair is plagued by ghosts. This Blair happens to be Britain’s Prime Minister.

American media have not picked up on the seriousness of Tony Blair’s political woes. Horrible storms, power outages, the California political spectacle over the governor’s recall election and bad news from Iraq have dominated the news in American this summer. In Great Britain, the ghost is in the form of a deceased Ministry of Defense scientist, David Kelly, who apparently committed suicide in July after having been “outed” or identified as the source for an explosive BBC story in May on the Iraq war and allegations of Number Ten and the Prime Minister’s Officehaving grossly misrepresented the threat.

The first story to break accused the government of having “sexed” up the dossier it released in September 2002 on “Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction.” A controversial statement in the dossier that alleged Iraq could ready and use weapons of mass destruction in “45 minutes” was also challenged. The reaction on the part of Number Ten and Mr. Blair’s director of communications Alastair Campbell was incendiary. Mr. Campbell and the BBC declared a war of words against each other, with the great British television institution standing by its report and the government proclaiming its innocence.

Enter Mr. Kelly. Mr. Kelly was a scientist with expertise in biological weapons and direct experience on the ground in Iraq ferreting these weapons out. Mr. Kelly chose to speak with BBC investigative reporter Andrew Gilligan, who promptly broke the story on radio and followed up with a piece in a London daily tabloid. The story and Number Ten’s explosive reaction might have run its course. However, Mr. Kelly was identified as the source of this and other leaks and made to testify to a House of Commons inquiry. Mr. Kelly then died, most likely by his own hand, obviously under great stress from his masters.

The whole affair disintegrated into a media frenzy. Mr. Blair had no choice but to appoint a court of inquiry. Lord Chief Justice Brian Hutton was selected to head it. Lord Hutton is a highly respected judge who sits on Britain’s equivalent of the Supreme Court in the House of Lords. The hearings, open to the public, have been going on for about three weeks.

Unlike America, there are no exclusions of evidence on grounds of executive privilege. Witnesses are those chosen by the court, and included Tony Blair, Minister of Defense Geoff Hoon and many other senior officials in government and in the BBC. Some 9,000 pages of evidence including closely held e-mails from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Defense and even the Secret Intelligence Service — sanitized of bits of classified information, are now in the public record.

Lord Hutton will release his findings this fall. And, while they are unlikely to cause the government to fall, they are very likely to contain serious indictments and criticisms of how the Blair administration advanced the case for war. Those indictments will find their way to America, and the Bush administration will not be pleased.

In his testimony, Mr. Blair accepted full responsibility. He also said that if the charges were true, he would have had no choice but “resignation.” Since no “smoking gun” is likely to be discovered, Mr. Blair is politically safe for the time-being. His party enjoys over a 200-seat majority in Parliament and there is no obvious successor in waiting. That is not true for Mr. Campbell, who announced his resignation last week. And the media reports that Mr. Hoon’s head may be next.

The most symbolically damning evidence is that the original title of the dossier — “Programmes for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” — was amended to read “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction,” implying Iraq indeed had them. And a subsequent dossier published in February of this year turns out to have been largely plagiarized from a graduate student’s dissertation. As a result, the majority of British citizens no longer believe or trust Blair on the rationale for the war. The inquiry will reinforce that opinion.

So far, Americans still support President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq even though weapons of mass destruction have not been found yet. The revelations in Britain will weaken the Bush administration’s arguments even further. Democrats and critics are certain to pounce.

Mr. Blair’s ghosts over Iraq are unlikely to haunt Mr. Bush for the moment unless unlawful activities are uncovered in Lord Hutton’s inquiry. But if the situation in Iraq does not show signs of improvement, rest assured that the Blair Witch Project will surface in the 2004 elections.

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