The Crisis Facing Tony Blair Is Bad News for Bush

In my column two weeks ago, I wrote about Tony Blair and expected not to return to the subject for a while. Developments in Britain have dictated otherwise. Within hours of the prime minister's rapturous reception on Capitol Hill, events at home confronted Blair with his worst crisis yet. The tale reveals a lot about America's staunchest ally—and it is one that many American commentators are getting wrong.

What precipitated the crisis was the death of a government scientist named David Kelly. Kelly had become the central figure in a battle between the government and the BBC over intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. His death will resonate in British politics for years. Resignations are likely. Blair has suffered an irreparable loss of trust. Britain's opposition Tories still look feeble—but because of this scandal, a Labor defeat in the next election is starting to look possible.

What happened? On May 29, a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, told listeners to the BBC's main radio news program that he had talked to a senior official. This official had helped to draw up a dossier of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction—a dossier that the government had subsequently published and had relied on in making the case for war against Iraq. This source, according to Gilligan, said that Downing Street had overridden concerns within the intelligence services and exaggerated the immediate danger posed by Iraq's WMD. Specifically, the dossier emphasized a claim that Iraq could use WMD at 45 minutes' notice—a claim that the intelligence experts regarded as unreliable. In a newspaper article soon after, Gilligan went further and said that this undue influence on the dossier had been exerted by Alastair Campbell, Blair's chief spin doctor.

The government responded with hysterical fury. Rather than denying it and moving on, as one might have expected, Campbell demanded and kept demanding retractions and apologies. He soon began a campaign to discredit Gilligan, Gilligan's source—unknown at this point, but variously described by ministers as a "rogue element" or as a middle-ranking official of no standing—and the BBC.

Then the source's name came to light. Kelly told his employers at the Defense Ministry that he had talked to Gilligan. Shortly afterward, Kelly was called before a House of Commons committee investigating the decision to go to war. He said he had spoken to Gilligan but denied saying what Gilligan had claimed. Soon after appearing before the committee, and having apparently vindicated the government, Kelly went for a walk in the countryside near his house, took painkillers, cut his wrist, and bled to death.

A judicial inquiry has been set up. It will be weeks (if ever) before the full story is known. In the meantime, though, the scandal has split British opinion. It has especially divided those who backed the war. Many of these people have sided with the government in the Kelly affair. They argue that the BBC was biased against the war all along, had been fishing for stories to discredit Blair and his team, and had seized on Gilligan's embroidered or semi-fictitious scoop as one more act of bad faith. This seems to be the position of almost all of the conservative American commentators who have passed judgment on the affair.

In Britain, however, many of those who backed the war have sided with the BBC (and with the rest of British opinion) against the government. They believe that the BBC's story was substantially correct, that Kelly misled the Commons committee about what he had told Gilligan, and that the government, in prosecuting a diversionary battle against Gilligan and his employer, is mainly to blame for Kelly's death.

And that is my own position. I backed the war: It was justified by what was known about the Iraqi regime; the world, in my view, is a better and safer place because of it. I still think it likely, in fact, that WMD will be found in Iraq. I thought the BBC's reporting of the war was persistently biased against the allies' side. I am disgusted by the taint of anti-Americanism that flavors the BBC's coverage of foreign affairs in general. I have believed since long before the Iraq war that the BBC should lose its charter (its right to be financed through taxation). But none of this alters my view that the BBC—on the evidence so far—is not seriously at fault in the Kelly affair. The government, on the other hand, is very seriously at fault.

The central question is this: Were officials troubled by the spin that the government was putting on the material published in support of the war? It seems clear they were. Many reports to that effect had appeared before Gilligan's, and in most cases the government did not even dispute them. Kelly spoke about his own worries on this not just to Gilligan, whose account is so ferociously contested by the government, but to two other BBC journalists as well. Their reports of what Kelly said substantially agree with Gilligan's—and the government has not taken issue with them. This suggests that the government aimed to distract attention from the main charge by attacking relatively unimportant details in Gilligan's account. This is an approach that Campbell has used before.

Kelly was neither a rogue element nor a middle-ranking nobody. He was Britain's most senior and experienced scientific expert on Iraq's WMD, a top adviser to both the Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry. He was a man with wide access to secret intelligence and in frequent contact with intelligence officers. Reflecting this seniority, Kelly briefed the press and had long done so, so he knew many journalists, including those at the BBC. He saw his task in such meetings as helping these journalists understand the complexities the government was dealing with.

According to friends, Kelly was convinced that Iraq had WMD programs; but it seems he was less sure that it had weapons ready to use. Blair, unlike America's president, rested the case for war almost entirely on Iraq's failure to abide by U.N. resolutions and disarm. The prime minister needed evidence of actual weapons. The government therefore decided to make the most of the intelligence it had. Its case for war appears to have been based on a tendentious selection of genuine intelligence—the 45 minutes claim is a case in point—not on outright lies. But the effect, nonetheless, was to mislead. (And the government did stoop to plain fraud in at least one instance: It compiled a notorious second dossier of "intelligence," plagiarized from an out-of-date academic thesis downloaded from the Internet.)

Kelly was too forthright in expressing doubts about the government's account of the Iraqi WMD threat. Hence, the reports by Gilligan and the others. Then, when the government decided to respond by declaring war on the BBC, Kelly was caught in the middle. In evasive testimony to a hostile Commons committee, he tried to deny that he had embarrassed the government. It seems he was crushed by this experience.

The focus of the scandal in Britain is now on how Kelly was treated by the government once he had told his department that he had had contact with Gilligan. Was he leaned on to contradict Gilligan's story—threatened with prosecution under the draconian Official Secret Acts, or with dismissal and loss of pension? Did the government expose his identity as Gilligan's contact, despite assurances of confidentiality when Kelly first volunteered what had happened? The government has already been caught in a lie: The Ministry of Defense outed Kelly by giving the press clues about his identity and subsequently confirming it—then denied having done so. Geoff Hoon, the defense minister, may have to resign. Campbell, too, is under pressure to go.

Campbell's departure would be an enormous blow to Blair. He has been at the prime minister's elbow for a decade. Blair's government is five parts spin to one part substance, so spin-master Campbell may be as important to the "New Labor" project as Blair himself. The Kelly affair has damaged the government so badly precisely because it encapsulates for British voters the way the demands of propaganda have shaped the character of this government. The opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith, talks of a culture of dishonesty and deceit—and he is right. When Blair was re-elected in 2001, 56 percent thought that the government "has, on balance, been honest and trustworthy." That figure now stands at 24 percent.

Does it matter to America? It does. The discrediting of Blair discredits George W. Bush by association. It adds to suspicions that America's government was dishonest, too. And it means that when the United States next needs Britain as an ally in the war against terrorism, Britain may not be there. That next fight may be justified, just as the attack on Iraq was justified. But unless Britain is attacked first, the public will unlikely ever again trust Blair to lead it to war.