Joe Conason's Journal

How many conspiracy theories will the apparent death of a missing U.K. Defense Ministry advisor spawn?

Published July 18, 2003 6:37PM (EDT)

Another scary weapons story, debunked
Will the apparent demise of Dr. David Kelly near his home in Oxfordshire excite conspiracy theorists and spawn a cottage industry of real and fraudulent investigations -- as the death of Vincent Foster did a decade ago?

Perhaps it would -- if liberal journalism observed the same forensic standards as certain writers on the payrolls of Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife and Sun Myung Moon. But for now, at least, in the Guardian and elsewhere, Kelly is being treated as what he appears most likely to have been: not a sinister victim, but a public servant brought under terrible and sudden pressures he could not withstand.

The Kelly tragedy will nevertheless add a measure of mystery to the continued crumbling of the White House war brief. How often have we been assured that when the muzzled Iraqi scientists are debriefed post-war, they will lead coalition officers to hidden caches of forbidden weapons? In Baghdad, reporters for the Wall Street Journal (subscription only) found Shakir al-Akidy, a biochemist who had once worked on weaponizing ricin, an extremely deadly toxin made from castor beans. (Ricin is comparatively simple to make and use for individual assassinations, but very difficult and perhaps impossible to prepare as a "weapon of mass destruction").

As the Journal's David S. Cloud points out, claims about Iraq's ricin program were cited before the war in the scary litany of the Pentagon civilian hawks. But the preponderance of evidence found by the Journal -- including the account of a second Iraqi scientist who worked on the same project -- suggests that the ricin scheme was probably abandoned no later than 1991.

As for those phantom mushroom clouds, yesterday Tony Blair reiterated that the British government had intelligence other than those forged Niger documents to bolster its claims about Iraq's quest for African yellowcake. But according to this Reuters article from last March, when the IAEA first exposed the forgeries, the agency's officials asked whether any other intelligence existed to support the uranium-buying charges. Both the British and the Americans said no.
[12:30 p.m. PST, July 18, 2003]

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