TOPICS > Nation

BBC Correspondent Admits Errors in Report on Iraq Intelligence

BY Admin  September 18, 2003 at 12:00 PM EDT

BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan apologized to a judicial inquiry for making several mistakes in his May 29 radio broadcast that sparked a bitter three-month dispute with the British government over the accuracy of Gilligan’s report.

In his appearance before the judicial inquiry investigating the apparent suicide of biological weapons expert David Kelly, Gilligan apologized for misidentifying Kelly as his confidential “intelligence source” who told him that the Blair government had deliberately embellished its prewar intelligence on Iraq’s weapons capabilities.

He said he regretted sending an e-mail to a member of parliament in which he called Kelly “my intelligence source,” when in fact Kelly did not work for an intelligence agency.

“It was quite wrong to send it and I can only apologize,” Gilligan told the judicial inquiry, known as the Hutton inquiry.

Kelly apparently killed himself shortly after being identified as the anonymous official who told Gilligan that Blair’s top aides deliberately “sexed up” prewar information on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in order to boost public support to take military action against then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Gilligan also said he was wrong to attribute certain phrases in the report to a single unidentified source and acknowledged he should have first informed Tony Blair’s office about the story before its broadcast.

In the now infamous May 29 broadcast, Gilligan reported that an anonymous senior official in charge of writing the prewar Iraq dossier alleged that a senior Blair aide inserted a dubious claim that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes — against the wishes of Britain’s intelligence agencies.

Gilligan on Wednesday admitted he made a “slip of the tongue” when he stated during a live broadcast that the government “probably knew (the 45-minute deployment claim) was wrong.”

“I was under an enormous amount of pressure at this time and I simply was not thinking straight,” Gilligan told the judicial inquiry, led by senior judge Lord Hutton.

Gilligan conceded that the theory that the Blair government was manipulating intelligence was his own, not his source’s, but he upheld that view as a “logical conclusion” of his investigative reporting.

The BBC correspondent also expressed regret that he had failed to correct a number of false statements made by the BBC’s board of governors, who, in their steadfast defense of Gilligan’s reporting methods, supported the claim that the confidential source was indeed “a member of the intelligence services.”

Gilligan explained that he kept quiet about the BBC’s statements because he wanted to protect the identity of his source.

But, Jonathan Sumption, a government attorney, cross-examined Gilligan, and accused the reporter of misleading the government and the public.

“You were perfectly happy, were you not, that your reports should carry the spurious authority of a senior member of the intelligence services?” Sumption demanded of Gilligan.

Still, Gilligan maintained his original report accurately reflected Kelly’s assessment that some intelligence officials were upset about the government’s inclusion of the 45-minute claim because that information originated from a single Iraqi source and had not been sufficiently corroborated by others.

The Blair government — which had come under intense scrutiny over whether it misled the Parliament and public with false information on Iraq — has repeatedly called for an official public retraction of Gilligan’s report and even his resignation.

The inquiry also throws into question Gilligan’s allegation that Blair’s ex-media chief, Alastair Campbell — who resigned Aug. 28 — was the primary person responsible for inserting the questionable 45-minute claim in the Iraq dossier. Campbell said he resigned for family reasons, denying his departure had anything to do with the inquiry into Blair’s prewar intelligence.

As the Hutton investigation continues, Gilligan’s claim about Campbell’s central role in drawing up the Iraq dossier will likely come under greater focus.

Gilligan, who is on paid leave by the BBC, said Thursday he has no plans to resign from his position as senior defense correspondent for the BBC’s Today radio program.

Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s news director, also testified before the Hutton inquiry Wednesday and acknowledged that Gilligan had made mistakes in his work.

“Andrew Gilligan is extremely good at finding out information, but there are sometimes questions of nuances and subtlety in how he presents it which are not all they should be,” Sambrook told the inquiry.

As as result of the Hutton inquiry, now entering its 19th day, BBC officials have said they plan to improve editorial standards, including requiring BBC lawyers to review potentially sensitive reports before broadcast.

The inquiry’s hearings are expected to conclude by late September. Lord Hutton said he will complete his final report as quickly as possible, but not likely before October.