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Blair emerges unscathed

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JAN. 28. Months of speculation and dire predictions were proved wrong today after the Hutton inquiry report cleared the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his Government of any wrongdoing in the events that culminated in the death of the weapons scientist, David Kelly, who committed suicide last summer after being named as the source of a controversial BBC report accusing Downing Street of exaggerating the threat from Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

The eagerly-awaited report vindicated Mr. Blair's claim that his Government had been falsely accused of distorting intelligence for political ends and deliberating presenting an alarming assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in the dossier published in September 2002.

It said the dossier was `drafted', `prepared' and approved by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and though Downing Street suggested a number of changes, only those that were consistent with independent intelligence assessments were accepted by the JIC chairman, John Scarlett.

Lord Hutton forcefully rejected the BBC's allegation that the Government "sexed up'' the dossier by inserting claims which it knew were wrong, particularly the claim that Iraq could deploy its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. He sharply criticised the BBC for allowing its reporter, Andrew Gilligan, to broadcast `unfounded' and `grave' allegations against the Government, and said that editorial controls at the BBC were `defective'.

Lord Hutton dealt at length with the BBC's handling of the Kelly story and questioned the way its management rushed to Mr. Gilligan's defence without properly investigating whether the remarks he had attributed to Kelly were accurate. He also criticised the BBC for not addressing properly the Government's concerns over the Gilligan report, which it saw as an attack on its `integrity'.

Contrary to predictions, Lord Hutton also cleared the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, of any impropriety in the way he handled the Kelly affair, particularly the manner in which the scientist was publicly identified as the BBC's source. While Kelly's family has maintained that it was the decision to name him that drove him to suicide as he felt publicly humiliated and was not able to cope, Lord Hutton concluded that the Government did not act in a `dishonourable' or deceitful manner in this matter. He agreed with the Government's view that once Kelly had come forward to accept that he had spoken to Mr Gilligan, it was `unrealistic' to believe that his identity would have remained secret — and that if the Government had refused to disclose his name, it would have been accused of a "cover-up''.

The inquiry report came as a huge relief to Mr. Blair and, speaking in Parliament, he said it left "no room for doubt or interpretation'' that his Government had done nothing wrong.

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