LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) chaired the meeting where officials decided to publicly confirm the identity of the source of a BBC report that the government "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons, a senior civil servant said Monday.
Before that July 8 meeting, officials believed the government had nothing to gain by disclosing that weapons adviser David Kelly (search) told his superiors he met with a British Broadcasting Corp. reporter.
"The change of stance ... was a result of the meeting chaired by the prime minister," said Sir Kevin Tebbit, the top civil servant at the Ministry of Defense.
Tebbit, speaking at a judicial inquiry into Kelly's death, said he did not attend the meeting but the ministry concurred with the decision.
Officials realized they could be accused of a cover-up if Parliament or the media learned that the scientist's name was being withheld, he said. Tebbit said the BBC report "was a ticking bomb."
The ministry put out a statement July 8 saying an employee came forward and admitted talking to the BBC, but it did not identify the employee. However, ministry press officers were told to confirm that it was Kelly if any journalist correctly guessed.
That happened the next day. On July 18, Kelly was found dead after apparently committing suicide.
Tebbit was the last witness called during the inquiry into Kelly's death by Lord Hutton, a top appeals court judge.
Last week, opposition Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith accused Blair of chairing meetings that "made the fatal decisions" about Kelly's identification.
During his party conference earlier that week, Smith also called Blair a liar and said the government's treatment of Kelly was the "prime minister's blackest act."
When Blair appeared before the inquiry Aug. 28, he took full responsibility for the government decision that led to Kelly's public identification. Blair said the action was necessary to ensure that all the facts were known.
However, it was unclear during the six weeks of hearings whether Blair was directly involved in that decision.
When asked whether he was aware of a definite decision to identify Kelly, Blair said, "No, I do not; but I have to say that I think that the basic view of this was -- you see, we were quite clear the name was going to come out in one way or another."
The prime minister said he did not see the material given to press officers to answer journalists' questions.
The Hutton inquiry ended late last month, but was reopened Monday to cross-examine Tebbit, whose testimony was postponed because he had surgery.
Hutton said Monday his long-awaited judgment may not be ready until early next year, later than expected. His report is expected to comment on the government's treatment of Kelly and the accuracy of the BBC report.
The finding will be important for Blair, President Bush's top ally during the Iraq war. Blair's popularity in Britain has waned significantly since major conflict in Iraq ended and coalition forces failed to find any weapons of mass destruction.
The prime minister, who called for the Hutton Inquiry (search), also has been hurt politically by a prewar dossier which claimed Iraq could deploy its alleged biological and chemical weapons in 45 minutes.
The May 29 report by the BBC's Andrew Gilligan quoted an unidentified intelligence source as saying the dossier was "sexed up" by the government to support Blair's argument for the war. The story, which has been criticized as partially inaccurate, grabbed the nation's attention and started a bitter dispute between the government and the BBC over its accuracy.