UK Attorney General Lord Goldsmith admits to changing mind over Iraq war

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

File photo of Lord Goldsmith in 2007
Image: Johnnyryan1.

Lord Peter Goldsmith, the Attorney General for England and Wales before and during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has told the Iraq Inquiry that he changed his mind about the legality of the invasion about one month before military action began.

During his six hour session of questioning, Goldsmith said that he changed his mind about whether a further United Nations resolution was needed to ensure that the invasion was legal. His testimony comes only a day after former foreign office legal advisor Michael Wood told the inquiry that his own advice, that a further resolution was required, was ignored in favour of Goldsmith's. Goldsmith's account was under scrutiny because he had consistently said that it would be "safer" if a further resolution were obtained—since it would have put the "matter beyond doubt and nobody could have challenged the legality"—before changing his mind and giving the "green light" only a month before the invasion. He said that he had "good reasons" for "ultimately reach[ing] a different view", and called his previous advice "too cautious". He based his support of the war's legality on a series of UN resolutions dating back to the end of the Gulf War.

Until February 2002, he believed that a new resolution would be required, but he said today that—after discussions with US and UK diplomats—he realised that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 "revive[d]" the authority of the United Kingdom to use force, as outlined in previous resolutions. One of these was United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, which was passed in November 1990. It authorized "Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait ... to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area" against Iraq if Saddam Hussein failed to give up his weapons of mass destruction. However, there has been debate about whether "all means necessary" included military force.

The prime minister made it clear that he accepted that it was for me to reach a judgement and he had to accept it.

—Peter Goldsmith

He admitted that he had told then prime minister Tony Blair, as far back as 2002, that any justification for war other than a UN resolution (such as regime change or self defence) would be invalid. Goldsmith said, "I don't think it [the advice] was terribly welcome." However, he added, "The prime minister made it clear that he accepted that it was for me to reach a judgement and he had to accept it." Goldsmith agreed that he ignored the advice of other legal advisors, including Michael Wood (who spoke before the inquiry yesterday) and Elizabeth Wilmshurst (who resigned in protest days before the invasion), who both said that invading Iraq without a new UN resolution would amount to the "crime of aggression". Goldsmith claimed to have "paid great attention to what their views were," but added, "Ultimately I disagreed with the views they took."

He said that an "unequivocal" opinion was needed before the invasion, and that this was what he gave in March, having been unsure about the war's legality previously. He denied changing his mind only days before the invasion, as some have claimed, saying that he had advised the government that the war would be legal as far back as February, and that his advice was "consistent". He also called claims that he was pressured into changing his opinion "nonsense". He said that he "was ready to answer questions" and intended to debate the issue with the cabinet, but was told that they would read his advice before moving on to different issues. He said that the debate did not in fact take place – he told the inquiry that he believes cabinet ministers considered it to be "a slightly sterile exercise".

In his testimony, Goldsmith also criticised Jack Straw's response to Wood's advice, saying that, while ministers could "challenge" legal advice, Straw "appeared to be rebuking a senior legal adviser for expressing his own legal view" in a recently declassified letter. He was also concerned that the cabinet ignored, or was unaware of, the caveats included in his March advice on the war's legality, in which he said that "the safest legal course" would be to get a new resolution, despite a "reasonable case" being available based on existing resolutions. His advice warned the government that he was not "confident" that the case based on existing resolutions would stand up in court. Goldsmith also requested the declassification of documents relating to the war's legal status, which are available to the Iraq inquiry, but not to the public. Sir John Chilcot, the chair of the inquiry, said that Goldsmith's "frustration is shared."


Some information contained in this article was obtained from television, radio, or live webcast sources. Reporter's notes and the broadcast source details are available at the collaboration page.