LONDON – A judge cleared Prime Minister Tony Blair's (search) administration Wednesday of any direct involvement in the suicide of a government expert on Iraqi weapons, but the BBC came under fire for its reporting of the scandal, prompting its chairman to resign.
The British Broadcasting Corp.'s (search) board of governors said it accepted Gavyn Davies resignation "with great reluctance and regret."
Blair's administration was cleared in a report issued by appeals judge Lord Hutton, who was appointed by Blair to investigate the death of weapons expert David Kelly (search).
Hutton concluded the government did not act in a "dishonorable, underhand or duplicitous" way in revealing Kelly's identity.
Hutton said he was satisfied that nobody involved in the matter could have foreseen that Kelly would take his own life. He killed himself after being identified as the anonymous source of the BBC report accusing the government of exaggerating claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to bolster support for war.
Blair welcomed Hutton's "extraordinary, thorough, detailed and clear" report and demanded the BBC withdraw its allegation he misled the country over Iraqi weapons.
"The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on WMD is itself the real lie," Blair said in the House of Commons. "And I simply ask that those that made it and those who have repeated it over all these months now withdraw it, fully, openly and clearly."
BBC chief executive Greg Dyke accepted that "certain key allegations" in its report were wrong and the BBC apologized. But he said the network had never accused the prime minister of lying.
The nationally televised report by Hutton after gathering months of evidence appeared to exonerate Blair after the biggest crisis of his seven years in office. The BBC report had challenged his integrity and the case he had made for British forces to join the war in Iraq. The scandal also damaged the BBC's reputation.
Hutton said the BBC report that Blair's government had manipulated its intelligence in an official dossier about Iraq's weapons was unfounded. He specifically rebutted the BBC report that the government had "sexed up" the dossier to bolster its argument for the war in Iraq.
"I am satisfied that none of the persons whose decisions and actions I later describe ever contemplated that Dr. Kelly might take his own life. I'm further satisfied that none of those persons was at fault in not contemplating that Dr. Kelly might take his own life," Hutton said on national TV as he read from his 328-page decision.
"Whatever pressures and strains Dr. Kelly was subjected to by the decisions and actions taken in the weeks before his death, I am satisfied that no one realized or should have realized that those pressures and strains might lead him to take his own life," Hutton said.
In his report, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan said a government statement that Iraqi forces could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was based on false intelligence that officials knew was unreliable.
"Whether or not at some time in the future the report on which the 45-minute claim was based was shown to be unreliable, the allegations reported by Mr. Gilligan on 29 May 2003 that the government probably knew that the 45-minutes claim was wrong before the government decided to put it in the dossier was an allegation that was unfounded," Hutton said.
Hutton sharply criticized the publicly funded BBC's "defective" handling of Gilligan's story, saying editors had failed to properly check the reporter's allegations and did not properly investigate the government's complaints about his report.
The judge criticized the BBC's Board of Governors for failing to fully investigate the criticism of Gilligan's report and would have probably discovered it to be unfounded if they had.
"If they had done this, they would probably have discovered that the notes did not support the allegation that the government probably knew that the 45 minutes claim was probably wrong," Hutton said.
Hutton criticized the board "for failing to give proper and adequate consideration to whether the BBC should publicly acknowledge that this very grave allegation should not have been broadcast."
The judge also said that Kelly had acted improperly by privately meeting with Gilligan and had breached rules regarding government employees contacts with the media because he hadn't been given permission from his superiors for such a meeting.
Critics had accused the government and Blair personally of cynically exposing Kelly to massive media scrutiny, thereby contributing to his death. Kelly's body was found near his home in a rural area in July, his left wrist slashed.
Hutton said the government acted "reasonably" in confirming Kelly's identity after he told his superiors he was probably the source of Gilligan's story. Kelly, however, denied telling Gilligan the 45-minute claim was false.
The judge said the government would have been guilty of a coverup if it had tried to conceal Kelly's identity.
"The issuing of the statement was not part of a dishonorable or underhand or duplicitous strategy to leak Dr. Kelly's name covertly in order to assist the government in its battle with the BBC," Hutton said.
While largely exonerating the government's handling of the matter, Hutton said Defense Ministry officials could have given Kelly more help when they confirmed his identity to the media. But Hutton said Kelly was an intensely private man and "not easy to help."
The judge agreed with an expert witness that a loss of self esteem and feelings of despair might have contributed to Kelly's suicide.
Hutton also dismissed as inaccurate a claim by Gilligan that Alastair Campbell, then Blair's director of communications, had been responsible for allegedly hyping the intelligence dossier.
"What the report shows very clearly is the prime minister told the truth, the government told the truth, I told the truth," Campbell said. "The BBC, from the chairman and the director-general down, did not."
Hutton pored over documents, e-mails, official minutes and extracts from Campbell's personal diary, which provided insights into the interplay of politics and policies at the highest level.
Hutton's hearings, lasting most of August and September, transfixed the country, which remains deeply divided about Blair's decision to back the U.S. attack on Iraq.
The retired chief U.S. weapons inspector, David Kay, said last week that he concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, which were the basis of Blair's case for war.