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Isolating the non-conformers: Dr David Kelly - a latter-day John Bennett?

25 July 2003

Dr David Kelly was the government’s chief chemical and biological warfare expert on Iraq and a member of a “high level working group responsible for processing intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme and deciding what information about it could be published” (24 July, The Guardian). Kelly’s interests and commitments – and also the shabby treatment he received - are reminiscent of the life of John G Bennett (died 1974), also a leading scientist of his day.

Bennett was an expert on solid fuel technology who served as director of various coal-related industry bodies in the 1930s, and, notwithstanding his pacificist beliefs, was appointed a key advisor in the Ministry of Fuel and Power during World War II. In 1942 he emerged as the chairman of the Conference of Research Associations under the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and later provided technical leadership as research director of Powell Duffryn which was engaged in the development of new Carbon materials and projects relating to atomic energy. Bennett found himself in the spotlight in 1950 because of the communist affiliations of one of his staff: “The ice broke unexpectedly, and with unnecessary drama. One night I worked late to finish a report. The next morning I arrived to be told that the laboratories had been sealed and no one was to enter. The newspapers got wind of it and the afternoon papers appeared with front page headlines ‘Research Laboratory working for Atomic Energy a communist spy centre’. I was besieged by reporters…I was fifty-three years old. I was member of several Government and Scientific committees. I still had something to contribute in the field I had worked in for just twenty years. I had expected to retire and keep an advisory position, which would enable me to preserve the balance between spiritual and worldly interests that I believe to be right for men in the modern world. All these expectations vanished overnight. Nor could the disaster have fallen at a worse time for me personally. Less than three weeks before the blow fell, my wife nearly died from a coronary thrombosis…”.

Bennett’s account perhaps conveys the besieged feelings when a dignified and intelligent man finds himself fingered by a hostile establishment. Interestingly, Kelly too shared Bennett’s vision of balancing the spiritual and the worldly: he had converted to the Baha’i faith in 1999 and attended its gatherings at his local centre in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Bennett had adopted an eclectic Sufism, and was a leading interpreter of the Indonesian mystic Muhammad Pak Subuh and other teachers such as Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. Like Kelly, Bennett too travelled extensively in Iraq and was sympathetic to its people. In 1953 Bennett noted "Everyone asks me what I think of Baghdad. I can only reply that its past has been destroyed, its present is uninteresting but that its future should be grand...if there is ever to be a united Arabia, its capital must be in Baghdad, which would then rule over a territory almost the size of Europe and a population that could exceed a hundred million. But for all this there must be a long period of peace...But I do feel the threat of modernisation, of the conversion of Arabia into another quasi-European community like Turkey. I do not know which way things will go...Here I leave Baghdad, destined probably, thanks to oil and irregation to become the richest city of the East."

Since May 2003, Kelly had been increasingly vocal in his meetings with journalists – he ridiculed the claims of the US and UK governments that ‘mobile germ warfare laboratories’ had been discovered and had no doubts that these were for the production of hydrogen for artillery balloons (20 July, The Observer). More seriously, he disclosed that the Government had exaggerated “out of all proportions” the claim that Iraq could launch WMDs within 45 minutes (23 July, The Guardian). Such messages were unpalatable to a Government whose case to Parliament on 17 March 2003 for sanctioning war was largely based on scare tactics – not liking the message, it became necessary to ‘shoot the messenger’. Thus Kelly was subjected to a four-fold torment: an intensive four -day interrogation at an MoD ‘safe house’ where he was also threatened with the Official Secrets Act – the questioning by Defence Intelligence officials has been described as “brutal” (20 July, The Independent on Sunday); belittling by being described as a low level ‘individual working in the MoD’ (20 July, The Observer) and ‘some kind of middle-ranking expert, pretty marginal in the general scheme of things’; the disclosure of his identity to the media notwithstanding an assurance of confidentiality; and finally exposure to private and public hearings of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. His body was found in a field near to his home 17 July and the circumstances leading to this tragedy, suicide or otherwise, are now the subject of a judicial enquiry under Lord Hutton.

Witness – the autobiography of John Bennet, Turnstone Press, 1975
Journeys In Islamic Countries, Volume 2 by J G Bennett, Coombes Springs Press, 1977

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