- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has escaped serious criticism in a report into the death of government weapons specialist David Kelly, according to a leak of the report due for release today.

The prime minister’s close friend and powerful media chief, Alastair Campbell, who masterminded the propaganda effort leading up to the Iraq war, also was absolved from any claims of improper behavior, according to the report. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon received only a light rebuke, it added.

The report indicated that neither Mr. Blair nor those closely involved were to blame in the death.

The Blair government named Mr. Kelly as the source of a critical story about the prime minister’s view that Iraq was capable of unleashing weapons of mass destruction within minutes of an order to do so.

“There was no dishonorable or underhanded or duplicitous strategy by the government covertly to leak Dr. Kelly’s name to the media,” the Sun newspaper quoted Brian Hutton as saying in the report.

The mild conclusions in Mr. Hutton’s report are seen as a major boost for Mr. Blair, because strong condemnation could have destroyed the British leader’s battered political career.

The prime minister also narrowly survived a revolt by more than 70 of his Labor Party supporters to win a crucial vote on university fees yesterday evening. Last-minute maneuvers won back a few crucial lawmakers to the prime minister’s side.

Sun political editor Trevor Kavanagh says he had read the report’s conclusions despite solemn promises made by those few people or organizations receiving copies one day in advance of its official release today at 8 a.m. EST.

A large headline in the Sun’s early-morning edition trumpeted: “Kelly Report Leaked.” Its arch rival tabloid, the Mirror, also claimed a leak and made the same key point: “Blair Cleared.”

The resurgent Conservative Party opposition immediately condemned the leaks as despicable pieces of manipulation by Mr. Blair’s supporters. Mr. Blair’s office, in turn, denied it had authorized any leaks of information.

“As far as Tony Blair is concerned, he is cleared completely of any dishonorable conduct in the naming strategy for Dr. David Kelly,” Mr. Kavanagh said.

He was referring to a peculiar policy adopted by Defense Ministry media officers, who allowed journalists to read off a list of people who might have been the source of a British Broadcasting Corp. story attacking the government’s honesty.

When a journalist tried 21 names, his last guess, Mr. Kelly, was confirmed immediately.

The BBC had reported that the government claimed Iraq could have a weapon of mass destruction prepared within 45 minutes of an order, when officials knew that this was “probably wrong.”

Mr. Campbell, the government’s media chief, wrote in his private diary that he was desperate to ensure the public knew that Mr. Kelly was the one who had leaked this incorrect information. This was revealed in a subsequent independent investigation.

Mr. Blair’s opponents used the scientist’s death as a major political stick with which to hammer home claims of deliberately misleading information provided to the British public as justification for the war.

The BBC reporter said Mr. Kelly had told him that the government had “sexed up” a detailed intelligence document that painted a frightening picture of Saddam Hussein’s military capacities and intentions.

The BBC is a national multimedia institution, funded almost entirely by a $170-a-year license fee from most of Britain’s 20 million homes. Its governors jumped to the defense of the reporter, even though they had not been told of criticism by his own bosses of that reporter’s propensity to exaggerate.

The BBC is criticized severely in today’s report, according to the Sun.

Last night, the government won the crucial vote on additional university fees with a majority of just five. But despite the relief of the prime minister and Education Secretary Charles Clarke, the Blair government still faces a tough battle getting the higher-education bill through the rest of its parliamentary course. The Conservatives’ chief spokesman on education and health, Tim Yeo, branded the result of the vote an “utter humiliation” for the government.

During the debate, leading rebels made clear their unhappiness at what the government was asking them to do.

“He cannot go on making policy by jumping off a cliff and expecting us to catch him,” said one Labor member of Parliament.

A Conservative member of Parliament, Nigel Evans, described Mr. Blair as “Dead Man Walking,” but that was before the leak of the crucial report into Mr. Kelly’s death.

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