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THE HUTTON INQUIRY: THE WRIGGLER; Hoon squirms for three hours in bid to pass the buck over death of Kelly.

Byline: OONAGH BLACKMAN, Deputy Political Editor and JAMES HARDY, Political Editor

DEFENCE Secretary Geoff Hoon squirmed his way through three hours of interrogation yesterday, desperately trying to pass the buck over the naming of scientist Dr David Kelly.

Struggling to save his political skin, Mr Hoon pointed the finger at No 10, Cabinet Office mandarin Sir David Omand, the Prime Minister's spin chief Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell and his own Permanent Secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit.

Others put in the frame by Mr Hoon included his private secretary Peter Watkins, his Ministry of Defence press chief Pam Teare, his special advisor Richard Taylor and Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

But Mr Hoon was in complete denial over any role he might have played in events leading to the death of Dr Kelly.

The Government weapons expert was found with his wrist slashed days after a grilling by the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr Hoon took the stand at the Hutton inquiry 24 hours before the Prime Minister.

He told Lord Hutton he did not think Dr Kelly should have been identified until it was proved he was the single source for BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan's story attacking the Government dossier on Iraq.

"My concern was to identify the key facts, whether Dr Kelly was or was not Andrew Gilligan's single source."

But Mr Hoon admitted approving a strategy that led ultimately to Dr Kelly being named by MoD press officials.

Asked if he was ever sure Dr Kelly was the BBC's single source, Mr Hoon replied: "Not before his death."

Mr Hoon said Dr Kelly had been asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee three days before his death to list journalists he had been in contact with.

Mr Hoon added: "People have speculated about the impact of preparing that list on his frame of mind at the time."

He felt Dr Kelly had been treated fairly by the MoD.

Showing no sympathy, Mr Hoon said: "It appeared to me in the way he had been questioned, the opportunities given, the help he had been provided with, he had been very well treated.

"I can't see any way that Dr Kelly was unfairly treated in the process inside the MoD."

Mr Hoon revealed that far from being "in the loop" at No10 at such a critical period for the Government, he was frequently reduced to speaking only to Mr Campbell and Mr Powell rather than to Mr Blair himself.

At one point, Mr Hoon gave the impression he was not even in control of crucial events in his own department.

He said he had not seen a controversial question-and- answer paper drawn up by his press chief Pam Teare, which gave journalists' clues to Dr Kelly's identity.

Mr Hoon looked up-tight when his draft letter, suggesting Dr Kelly be questioned in public by the Intelligence and Security Committee, was read out. He tried to squirm away from blame, saying it was advice from his Permanent Secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit.

"This was not something I had ever advocated and did not."

The inquiry heard Sir Kevin had advised that Dr Kelly should not appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee in public. But inquiry QC James Dingemans began reading the letter, showing Mr Hoon had over-ruled that advice and was ready to thrust Dr Kelly into the spotlight.

Mr Hoon butted in and asked Mr Dingemans to read other parts for "completeness".

Mr Dingemans fired back: "I was going to give a fair summary." Mr Hoon was left saying: "I apologise." Mr Hoon was shown a letter written in his name by his private secretary Peter Watkins, suggesting that Dr Kelly give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee in public.

Again Mr Hoon wriggled, blaming Mr Watkins. He said the letter reflected his secretary's "paraphrase of decisions I had taken".

Mr Dingemans asked whether the letter was an "accurate summary" of Mr Hoon's views.

Still finding it hard to admit his part, Mr Hoon said: "It was certainly a summary of the decision I took."

When his own draft letter was flashed up on computer screens at the inquiry, showing he suggested Dr Kelly give evidence in public, he realised the game was up. Mr Hoon said: "I accept that ultimately it was my decision. I am not in any way trying to avoid that."

But even at that stage he tried to dodge any guilt.

He said: "Where I have not entirely accepted the advice that I have been given by civil servants, if civil servants are unhappy they come back and ask me to reconsider. That did not happen on this occasion."

He denied there had been a Government conspiracy to name Dr Kelly, adding: "I think the suggestion for naming Dr Kelly actually came from Jonathan Powell."

Mr Hoon recalled how he met Dr Kelly in the MoD canteen in April but did not realise he was the Government's weapons expert. "I did not know who it was. We talked about Iraq and Government policy, which the official said he supported.

"I did not know it was Dr Kelly then.

"I think I only knew it was Dr Kelly when, after his death, one of his daughters reminded me of this occasion."

CAPTION(S):

SUICIDE: Dr Kelly; PROTEST: Hoon parody outside court; ROASTED: Hoon leaves the hearing yesterday
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 28, 2003
Words:890
Previous Article:THE HUTTON INQUIRY: THE KEY POINTS.. THE KEY QUOTES.
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