- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

LONDON — British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday denied the government conspired to publicly identify a weapons adviser caught in a political storm over the government’s case for war in Iraq.

Appearing before an inquiry, Mr. Hoon rejected a suggestion that a series of statements and briefings by officials amounted to a deliberate strategy to identify arms expert David Kelly as the possible source for a British Broadcasting Corp. report that the government exaggerated the threat from Iraqi weapons.

Mr. Kelly apparently committed suicide after he was identified and called to testify before two parliamentary committees.

A lawyer acting for Mr. Kelly’s family, Jeremy Gompertz, suggested yesterday there had been a “deliberate government strategy to place [Mr.] Kelly’s name into the public arena without appearing to do so” by releasing bits of information and agreeing to confirm Mr. Kelly’s name if journalists came up with it.

But Mr. Hoon denied the suggestion.

The secretary said he had agreed to a Defense Ministry statement on July 8 saying that one of its employees had acknowledged speaking to the BBC journalist who reported the charges against the government.

He also said that, although he did not see a briefing note prepared for Defense Ministry officials handling media queries, he did agree to the strategy of confirming Mr. Kelly’s name to journalists who guessed it.

An attorney for the Kelly family last week suggested that the briefing note amounted to a “parlor game” that guided journalists to the name.

Mr. Hoon said the alternatives to confirming the name were unacceptable.

“One was to lie and the other … involved difficulty for the press office to maintain a no-comment policy,” he said. “A no-comment policy, which I know from experience of dealing with journalists, they would have regarded … as some sort of confirmation.”

The defense secretary said he still believed his department followed the right strategy, and that he felt it was inevitable that Mr. Kelly’s name would emerge at some point.

The BBC reported that an unidentified source said Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office asserted Iraq could launch chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes, even though the government suspected the information was unreliable.

The BBC journalist who reported the story, Andrew Gilligan, later wrote in a newspaper that his source said Mr. Blair’s communications chief, Alastair Campbell, ordered the insertion of the 45-minute claim. The government has denied the charge.

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