LONDON - The arms expert at the center of a dispute about whether the British government doctored its intelligence reports on Iraq's weapons programs to gain public support for going to war was found dead on yesterday morning near his home in Oxfordshire, his wife said.
The weapons specialist, Dr. David Kelly, left his home on Thursday afternoon saying he was going for a walk, and never returned, his wife, Janice Kelly, said in a telephone interview on yesterday.
Janice Kelly said yesterday that the police had confirmed that the body was her husband's and that the cause of death was suicide. She declined to say what led the police to that conclusion, saying that they had asked her not to discuss details of her husband's death.
The body was discovered on a woodland footpath five miles from the Kelly residence in the village of Southmoor. The acting superintendent of the Thames Valley police, Dave Purnell, said earlier yesterday that a formal identification would be made today but that the description of the body matched that of David Kelly. Calling the case an "unexplained death," Purnell declined to discuss possible causes.
Janice Kelly said that her husband had worked Thursday morning on a report he said he owed the Foreign Office and had sent some e-mail messages to friends. "After lunch, he went out for a walk to stretch his legs as he usually does," she said.
She had no indication that her husband was contemplating suicide, she said. "But he had been under enormous stress, as we all had been," she said.
David Kelly, 59, an Oxford-educated former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq with a specialty in biological weapons, faced tough questioning Tuesday from the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs about whether he had been the source of an accusation reported by the British Broadcasting Corp. that the British government had doctored intelligence findings in its campaign to gain public support for going to war in Iraq.
A political storm
Kelly, whose title was senior adviser on weapons of mass destruction, might have unwittingly become caught up in a painfully public political storm for which his experience as a respected expert on bioterrorism and his personal life as an intensely private family man had not prepared him.
The implication of the badgering questions from the committee was that the scientist had been set up to rebut reports by the BBC about possible government manipulation of intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
A soft-spoken civil servant in the Ministry of Defense accustomed to working behind the scenes, Kelly was pressed repeatedly by committee members to say whether he was the "fall guy" in the bitter dispute that has pitted the government against the BBC and has been front-page news in Britain during the last week.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's powerful communications and security director, Alastair Campbell, has conducted a wide-ranging campaign against the BBC, the world's largest public service broadcaster, alleging that it has let its vaunted standards of impartiality lapse in the pursuit of what he has called "an agenda against the war."
In an e-mail message to a reporter sent hours before he left for his walk, Kelly gave no indication that he was depressed. He said that he was waiting "until the end of the week" before judging how his appearance before the committee had gone, and referred to "many dark actors playing games." Based on earlier conversations with Kelly, the words seemed to refer to people within the Ministry of Defense and Britain's intelligence agencies with whom he had often sparred over interpretations of intelligence reports.
Blair was told about the discovery of the body during a flight to Tokyo from Washington yesterday, and upon his arrival, his spokesman said, "The prime minister is obviously very distressed for the family."
`Very, very stressed'
Tom Mangold, a journalist for the British news network ITV and a friend of David Kelly's, said that he had spoken yesterday morning to Janice Kelly, who said her husband had been "very, very angry about what had happened at the committee" on Tuesday.
"She didn't use the word `depressed,'" Mangold said, "but she said he was very, very stressed and unhappy about what had happened and this was really not the kind of world he wanted to live in."