A row between the British government and the BBC over the motive for the Iraq war has turned toxic following the apparent suicide of a government "mole" at the heart of the affair, with the fallout spreading deep into the cabinet and up to Prime Minister Tony Blair himself.
The death of government scientist and Iraq weapons expert David Kelly, who was found Friday in a wooded area with one wrist slashed in what police described as a suicide, marks a macabre turn after months of angry accusations that Mr. Blair misused intelligence to build the case for war against Saddam Hussein.
Dr. Kelly's death has prompted angry calls for heads to roll both at the top of the government and the top of the BBC. The controversy is even starting to affect financial markets, with the pound starting to suffer.
The upshot is likely to be negative not just for the government and the BBC but for the quest to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Kelly's death deprives the government of a key weapons scout precisely at a time when it urgently needs to find WMD in Iraq to justify its war motives.
Mr. Blair has shaken off calls for his own resignation, but the spectacle of a reporter asking him if he had "blood on his hands" at the weekend has hurt him in opinion polls.
The latest survey, a YouGov poll published in the Daily Telegraph Monday, showed that 59 percent of Britons think less of Blair now than they did before Kelly died, and that 39 percent believe he should quit. Just 18 percent trust the government in its stand-off with the BBC. Two of Blair's senior advisers, press chief Alastair Campbell and defense minister Geoff Hoon, are considered vulnerable.
Controversy surrounding the weapons inspector "has inflicted immense damage on the reputation of a government," said Anthony King, professor of politics at Essex University, in a newspaper commentary on the latest poll.
Blair has struggled on with a three-nation visit to Asia that has been eclipsed by his domestic woes. He has called for a judicial inquiry to shed light on Kelly's suicide, promising to give evidence himself to the probe. "This is a time for respect and restraint, not for recrimination of any sort," Blair said, calling Kelly's death "a terrible, terrible tragedy."
The BBC too has suffered a severe blow to its reputation, accused of playing fast and loose with facts and sources.
"The pressure on the BBC has certainly increased," says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University. "Heads must roll eventually. This has not been well handled. The BBC hasn't come out of this particularly well."
The controversy centers on a BBC report that cast grave doubts on intelligence used by the government to justify the Iraq war.
Specifically, the correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, cited a "senior intelligence official" as saying that Downing Street "sexed up" intelligence to make the case for war more compelling. Some of the government's intelligence has since been called into question, particularly a claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger and could activate chemical warheads in 45 minutes.
The BBC report accused the government of overplaying intelligence that had come from a single, uncorroborated source. The report proved incendiary.
Blair saw it as a personal affront to his integrity. Mr. Campbell, directly fingered for supposedly exaggerating the intelligence, called for the BBC to retract the allegations and apologize. He mounted an all-out campaign against the BBC and its confidential source. Parliament held an inquiry. The pressure to reveal the name of the BBC's source became enormous. Mr. Hoon's defense ministry helped leak Kelly's name to the press, an act that appeared to some to offer the government scientist as a sacrificial lamb.
Kelly was one of Britain's chief authorities on Iraq's covert weapons programs, a government scientist and respected former member of the United Nations weapons inspection team accustomed to dealing with delicate situations in Iraq.
But it was an encounter much closer to home that would prove more treacherous: lunch with Mr. Gilligan. Precisely what was said at the encounter may now never be known. Kelly denied talking of "sexing up" the dossier and challenged the words that he says were put into his mouth. "I don't see how he [Gilligan] could make the authoritative statement he was making from the comments I made," he told Parliament in hearings last week.
Friends say he would never use such vulgar language, while analysts suspect that the BBC may have inflated his words. The revelation Sunday that Kelly was the prime source behind the BBC report has led many to begin to question the broadcasting corporation's story."There are doubts about whether the story that appeared was sustained by the evidence that they were given by Dr. Kelly," says Professor Grant.
"There is something of a gap between his account and what the BBC said," Grant says. "But now it is going to be very difficult to establish what the facts were."
The BBC is adamant that Kelly's words were not gilded in any way.
"I did not misquote or misrepresent Dr. David Kelly," said Gilligan in one of the many BBC statements on the affair. "The BBC believes we accurately interpreted and reported the factual information obtained by us during interviews with Dr. Kelly," the corporation added in another.
Brought before a parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, Kelly was last Tuesday subjected to a grilling that his family says was devastating for the scientist and robbed him of his professional self-esteem.
An e-mail written shortly before his death spoke of "many dark actors playing games."
Kelly's family said in a statement: "Events over the recent weeks made David's life intolerable, and all those involved should reflect long and hard on this fact."