The scientist being filmed at his cottage in the English countryside couldn’t be more relaxed. As he sits in his comfy chair, surrounded by his library, he’s the very picture of urbane charm. So it’s startling to consider that, a month after he gave this interview, Dr David Kelly would leave this cottage, walk across the fields to his favourite wood and kill himself.
The suicide in July 2003 of Kelly, a former United Nations weapons inspector and biological weapons adviser to Tony Blair’s Government, almost brought down the British prime minister. It did bring down – eventually – the BBC hierarchy. All because Kelly gave a secret briefing to Andrew Gilligan, a maverick BBC reporter who in turn accused Blair’s office of “sexing up” intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein’s so-called weapons of mass destruction.
Sydney-based filmmaker Susan Lambert wasn’t at Kelly’s cottage to talk to him about the Iraq war. She knew she would never get Ministry of Defence clearance. Instead, she had been granted permission to talk to Kelly about his pivotal role in the early 1990s in uncovering the then Soviet Union’s secret and illegal biological warfare program. Setting up the interview – for Lambert’s fascinating documentary Deadly Enemies, a history of germ warfare in the Cold War – took months.
When Lambert finally got to film Kelly she found him “affable, clearly enjoying his job, patriotic, very loyal to the Ministry of Defence, with a huge amount of experience – hardly a Walter Mitty, as he was described”.
She spent “five or six hours at his home”. Kelly was a man at the top of his game. Not a hint of inner turmoil. No forewarning of the political bomb that was about to explode. It turned out to be Kelly’s last interview. And that, of course, made Lambert’s documentary hot property.
In Britain, there was a bidding war between the BBC (ironically) and Channel 5. The commercial station won. Chillingly, his last words on camera go to the heart of the weapons of mass destruction debate: “There is no clear delineation between offensive and defensive research [into biological warfare]. It’s really a question of intent … and intent is very difficult to determine.”
Lambert, one of Australia’s leading documentary makers, got the idea for Deadly Enemies in New York in 2003 while reading a book on germ warfare. “The idea of microbes being enhanced by humans to make them more deadly I find particularly repugnant and terrifying. I had a real need to understand the history behind the so-called bio-terrorist threats which went on after September 11.”
Backed by the ABC, she tracked down evocative archive footage that explains how germ warfare became a dubious, but crucial, part of Cold War arsenals after Winston Churchill ordered British scientists in 1942 to develop anthrax bombs to drop on Germany. But her real coup was being able to talk on camera to Kelly and four other scientists – two Russian, two American – who were key players in germ-warfare programs. A complex tale of ambiguity and lethal self-interest emerges. Not all the heroes and villains are predictable. It was Richard Nixon who ordered the destruction of the US’s stockpile of biological weapons; Mikhail Gorbachev who lied point-blank when Maggie Thatcher asked him whether he was building a germ-warfare arsenal.
Gorbachev’s duplicity was exposed by a UN weapons inspection team led by Kelly. He got the Soviets to admit they were producing smallpox and anthrax on a huge scale. That work, Kelly tells Lambert, changed his life. Neither knew as they talked that it would also lead to his death.
Courtesy Rowena Thursby
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