Ex-minister says UK Cabinet was "misled" about legality of Iraq war

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In this 2009 file photo, Clare Short is speaking at a rally in Birmingham.
Image: Faizan Bhat.

Clare Short, the United Kingdom's then-Secretary of State for International Development, appeared before the Iraq Inquiry yesterday, and told the panel that the Cabinet was "misled" about the Iraq War's legality prior to the 2003 invasion. The three-hour session was held in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London's City of Westminster.

Short, an outspoken critic of the war, retired from the cabinet to become an independent MP two months before the invasion. She claimed to have been "conned" into staying on despite her doubts about the war and told the inquiry that the Cabinet, of which she was a part, was not a "decision-making body", and that Parliament was simply a "rubber stamp".

Lord Goldsmith's decision

She also claimed that Tony Blair "and his mates" had acted "on a wing and a prayer", having "leaned on" then-Attorney General for England and Wales Lord Peter Goldsmith, pressurising him to change his mind about the invasion. She did, however, admit that she had no evidence to support these claims. Goldsmith gave a verdict that the war would be legal only shortly before the invasion, having firmly held the belief that it would not be without a further United Nations Security Council resolution.

Short was applauded as she concluded her testimony, in which she said that she was "shocked" at how a definitive statement about the legality of the war circulated only as late as March 17, 2003 — just three days before the invasion began — that this state of shock led her to be "jeered at" by other ministers. Said statement, according to Short, contained no hint that Goldsmith had previously had any doubts whatsoever.

She said any discussion of legality was stopped at the same pre-war cabinet meeting. She accused Blair of standing in the way of such discussion, and said, "Everything that's happened since makes me know that there was deliberate blockage and there were also all sorts of secret, private meetings", and that normal cabinet communications were "closed down" as the invasion approached. "There was never a meeting that said 'what's the problem, what are we trying to achieve, what are our military, diplomatic options?' We never had that coherent discussion ... never."

I think [Goldsmith] misled the cabinet. He certainly misled me, but people let it through

—Clare Short

Goldsmith responded to her inquiries about the lateness of this statement by saying "it takes me a long time to make my mind up", and that he had made his decision after consulting foreign legal professionals. She said that Goldsmith's "doubts and his changes of opinion" made her "think for the attorney general to come and say there's unequivocal legal authority to go war was misleading." She said that "I think he misled the cabinet. He certainly misled me, but people let it through".

[I]f we got a Palestinian state and a UN lead on reconstruction, that will be much better

—Clare Short

She claimed that the government, having failed to secure a required UN resolution, started the "untrue" rumour that France had vetoed it. She said that she "believed them at the time. You don't want to disbelieve your Prime Minister in the run-up to war and you want to believe the leader of your party. You want to be loyal".

UN involvement

When asked why she had not resigned earlier than she did, she said that she "was conned" by Blair's promises of a strong role for the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq, as well as more attempts to resolve the conflict about Israel. She said that she "thought that if we got a Palestinian state and a UN lead on reconstruction, that will be much better ... I took a lot of flak for it. I still think, if we had done those things, it would have been a heck of a lot better." She says that this lack of UN involvement in the post-invasion reconstruction effort was her main reason for retiring from the government.

Short said that she "was seeing the intelligence" about Iraq at the earlier stages of preparation for an invasion, but that in late 2002 "asked for a briefing... This just didn't come and didn't come... it became clear there was some sort of block on communications." Apparently, the intelligence reports she say said that "Saddam Hussein didn't have nuclear [weapons] ... [he] would if he could but he was nowhere near it. It wasn't saying there was some new imminent threat".

Tony Blair, 9/11, and post-war planning

Short asserted Blair's evidence, given to the inquiry on Friday, was "historically inaccurate", since "[t]here was no evidence of any kind of an escalation of threats" after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. This is contrary to Blair's claims that attitudes towards the threat Iraq posed "changed dramatically" after the attacks, and that Saddam Hussein "threatened not just the region but the world".

We could have gone more slowly and carefully and not have had a totally destabilised and angry Iraq

—Clare Short

She said, "We could have gone more slowly and carefully and not have had a totally destabilised and angry Iraq. The American people were misled to suggest that al-Qaeda had links to Saddam Hussein. Everybody knows that is untrue - that he had absolutely no links, no sympathy, al-Qaeda were nowhere near Iraq until after the invasion and the disorder that came from that." Short criticised the military for not meeting the obligations laid out for them, as an occupying force, by the Geneva Convention.

Background and response

Lord Boyce, the former head of the British armed forces, said in an earlier hearing that officials from the Department for International Development — Short's department — let their opposition to the war prevent them from cooperating fully with the rest of the government immediately after the invasion. Alistair Campbell, Blair's former spokesman, said that Short had been "difficult to handle" in the run-up to the invasion, and that there was fear that she may leak pieces of information that she did not agree with. Lord Andrew Turnbull, former Secretary of the Cabinet, however, said that these concerns were unfair, and that minority voices had been unfairly pushed to the sidelines.

Hilary Benn, who took over Short's post after her resignation, is scheduled to give evidence before the inquiry today.