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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kelly, a Mild-Mannered Scientist

NEW YORK -- Dr. David Kelly, the British microbiologist who committed suicide last week while caught up in a dispute about whether the British government doctored intelligence reports on Iraq's weapons programs, played a key role in Western efforts to uncover biological warfare programs in Iraq and the former Soviet Union.

An Oxford-educated scientist who took pride in his status as a civil servant, Kelly was Britain's leading specialist on biological weapons.

Donald Mahley, the Bush administration's special negotiator for control of chemical and biological weapons who traveled to former Soviet biological facilities with Kelly in the early 1990s, said Kelly possessed "that rare combination of technical skill and political savvy that made him the bane of proliferators."

With a background in agricultural science, Kelly had been the chief scientific officer of Britain's Natural Environment Research Council of Virology. In 1984, he became the head of microbiology after rising through the ranks of the Ministry of Defense's chemical research center at Porton Down.

In 1989, he was one of two British officials who first debriefed Vladimir Pasechnik, then the most senior biologist ever to defect from the Soviet Union's biological warfare program.

Pasechnik's assertions that the Soviet Union had produced long-range missiles to deliver germs and had made a genetically modified version of plague that was impervious to vaccines and antibiotics stunned policymakers in London and Washington.

"He helped uncover the biggest, most secret and horrendous biological warfare program ever mounted," said Tom Mangold, the co-author of "Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare," which described Kelly's role in deciphering the Soviet program.

After Pasechnik's disclosures, there began a series of exchange visits to Russian and American biological facilities; Kelly took part in those visits for three years, starting in 1991.

During one of the visits, he badgered a scientist into acknowledging that the Soviet Union had experimented with smallpox at a lab at Vector. The admission confirmed Western fears that the Soviets were trying to develop a smallpox weapon.

Colonel David Franz, who worked with Kelly on missions to Russia and Iraq, said Kelly "had a unique ability to store and process knowledge.

"But he was so quiet about what he knew and what he was thinking," Franz said, "that you never knew what it was until he said it."

During one visit to a bio-weapons site at Omutninsk, Frantz said, the Soviet scientists stonewalled the Western experts. Shy and self-effacing, Kelly thanked the midlevel manager who had shown them the facility, saying he knew that the tour had been difficult for him.

"And the scientist just melted and said, I'm so sorry I can't be honest with you," Franz said. "It was poker, and David had set that up."

Kelly later joined the UN commission that was authorized to monitor Iraq's pledge to disarm itself of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

He played a central role in uncovering Iraq's biological weapons program, former inspectors said. In 1995, after four years of denial, senior Iraqi officials conceded that Baghdad had produced thousands of gallons of liquid anthrax and botulisum.

According to Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat who was the first chief of the UN inspection team, that disclosure prompted Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, to flee to Jordan, a move that led to later disclosures about Iraq's germ warfare program.

After visiting Baghdad after the fall of Hussein's government, Kelly told associates that he believed Hussein operated advanced chemical and biological research and development programs, and probably had chemical weapons.

He said it was conceivable that deadly weapons and other material were still buried in Iraq, but he was critical of the way in which American armed forces had gone about hunting for them, and expressed the fear that material might have been looted, hidden or carried away.

"It may be virtually impossible to construct through traditional forensics what Iraq had done," he once said.

He also expressed frustration that the weapons hunters in Iraq included so few people who were knowledgeable about the country and its scientific and weapons experts.

Kelly's wife, Jan, said he had been under enormous pressure, but in e-mails sent hours before his death, he gave no hint of that, telling an associate, for instance, that he looked forward to returning to Iraq.