Tuesday’s sharp interrogation of Martin Howard will serve as a warning to embattled Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications chief Alastair Campbell, who will appear again next Monday.
Blair will not testify again but has already suffered severe political damage over Kelly’s death and the wider case the government made for war on Iraq.
Kelly slashed his wrist in July after he was exposed as the source of a BBC report accusing the government of hyping up the case for war to win over a sceptical public. Blair’s public trust ratings have since evaporated, with most Britons doubting the case he made for attacking Iraq and many blaming his administration for Kelly’s demise.
Howard, who was closely involved in the decision to make Kelly’s name public, was pressed by Jeremy Gompertz, the Kelly family’s counsel, to admit the mild-mannered weapons expert had been treated “shabbily”.
A nervous looking Howard disagreed. Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, an intelligence expert who watched the proceedings, told Sky Television: “Howard was a most discomfited little bunny.”
Less than two weeks before his death, Kelly was told by his Ministry of Defence bosses that they would have to put out a statement saying an official had talked to BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan, but that he would not be named.
Kelly agreed but as events unfolded, clues to his identity were given to reporters by both defence press officers and Blair’s spokesman and the Ministry of Defence then agreed to confirm Kelly’s name to any journalist who guessed it. Several did.
Gompertz put it to Howard that the MoD had played a game of “Russian roulette” with Kelly and nobody had given any thought to his state of mind. “The strategy that was adopted with regard to Dr Kelly’s name was both cynical and irresponsible,” the lawyer said.