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Tough Questions for Britain's Tony Blair

On Thursday, Tony Blair becomes the second ever prime minister to appear before a judicial inquiry. He'll be grilled about the suicide of David Kelly, who accused Downing Street of “sexing up” an Iraq weapons report.

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The PM faces an unpleasant afternoon at the Old Bailey.

Tony Blair faces a tough line of questioning on Thursday before the Hutton Inquiry, which is looking into the death of the source of a BBC report claiming the government "sexed up" its dossier of evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. His testimony marks only the second time in history that a British prime minister has been forced to appear before a judicial inquiry into government affairs.

The Hutton Inquiry, led by Lord Hutton of the Royal Courts of Justice, is seeking to determine whether Blair’s government acted improperly in naming Kelly, who had been an anonymous BBC source. The contents of the report, however, will prove less important than Kelly's naming, since the government has already admitted the Iraqi threat was not what they had originally thought it was.

Blair’s appearance could be made more difficult following testimony on Wednesday by his Defense Secretary, Geoff Hoon, who sought to distance himself from decisions taken to release the name of the scientist.

Geoff Hoon David Kelly Untersuchungsausschuss

Geoff Hoon

While acknowledging that his ministry’s press office had revealed David Kelly’s name to the BBC, Hoon (photo) said his press officers had worked with officials from the prime minister’s office and that he had no part in it. But Hoon said there had been "no conspiracy" in the decision to reveal Kelly’s name; nor had there been any cover-up attempt.

Political intrigue

After his naming, Kelly had been forced to testify before two high-ranking parliamentary committees, and Hoon conceded that pressure placed on the scientist by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee may have contributed to his decision to take his own life.

Police found Kelly’s (photo) body near his home on July 18 with a slashed left wrist. Kelly’s naming and later suicide launched a national scandal that threatens the future of the Blair government. Hoon has also been under fire because it was his decision to order Kelly to appear before the committees.

Hoon also acknowledged that he had sent a confidential letter to the BBC at the behest of Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, in an effort to find out whether Kelly had been the source of the story.

At the same time, Hoon defended his ministry against charges that it had treated Kelly "poorly" during the events leading up to his death. On July 14, for example, Defense Ministry Personnel Director Richard Hatfield sent Kelly a letter accusing him of "ill-judged" meetings with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan that were a serious breach of procedure. In talks with reporters, Kelly said he felt he had been put "through the ringer" by the Defense Ministry. On the dock, Hoon dismissed such claims.

"In fact, he had been very well treated by the personnel director and those in the department, and a great deal of support had been afforded to him," Hoon said. "I cannot see any way in which Dr. Kelly was poorly treated in the Ministry of Defense." The defense minister said he tried to protect Kelly from the media and that he had not seen a memo calling on the ministry’s spokesmen to confirm Kelly’s name if reporters called and identified him.

A prime minister on the dock

On Thursday, the focus will be on Blair, for whom the stakes are highest. Since the outbreak of the scandal, public trust in the British leader has eroded sharply.

Four days after Kelly’s death, Blair denied any involvement in the decision to name Kelly. "Emphatically not, I did not authorize the leaking of the name of David Kelly." But testimony and evidence submitted to the Hutton Inquiry has raised serious doubts about that claim. Already, Downing Street’s security and intelligence coordinator, Sir David Omand, has admitted that Blair accepted his idea of giving Kelly’s name to the Intelligence and Security Committee without his the scientist’s consent, saying Kelly had an obligation to testify because of the "very great damage" he had caused the government.

Blair will be asked why Kelly’s name was revealed to the press and what role he played in the decision. He is also likely to be asked whether his government sought to embellish the weapons dossier to make war more palatable to the British public.

The prime minister’s political future could lie in his answers to those questions.

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