UK govt concealed Attorney General's doubts over Iraq invasion

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

The United Kingdom's Blair government concealed doubts expressed by its Attorney General's department on whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq was legal. Now, in the run-up to a May 5 general election and with no evidence of a serious threat from pre-invasion Iraq having come to light, a furor has erupted over the issue.

High-ranking governmental legal advisor, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, protested in her resignation letter just prior to the invasion, about sudden, unexplained changes the Attorney General had made in the tone of his legal advice to the government. In the space of a few weeks, Lord Goldsmith dropped suggestions that the government may have been legally culpable if it invaded without receiving specific support in the form of a new UN Resolution.

When the BBC News website finally obtained Wilmshurt's resignation letter under Freedom of Information, her protest over the Attorney General's unexplained turnaround was obscured.

The missing paragraph was later obtained by Channel 4 News:

"My views accord with the advice that has been given consistently in this office before and after the adoption of UN security council resolution 1441 and with what the attorney general gave us to understand was his view prior to his letter of 7 March. (The view expressed in that letter has of course changed again into what is now the official line.)"

Conservative party leader Michael Howard, wants to know what made Lord Goldsmith change his advice to the government. He told Channel Four, "The Prime Minister [Tony Blair] has said that the attorney general's advice given to the cabinet on the 17 of March was clear and the attorney general did not change that advice. Well, we now know the attorney general did change that advice and the question is what or who changed it."

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in a statement last month, read in both houses of parliament, defended initially censoring the letter on privacy grounds, and the later omission of the two revealing lines "because their content concerned the provision of legal advice in relation to the use of force against Iraq."

Although Ms Wilmshurst describes the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith's 13-page, March 7 letter as being a change to his previously expressed view against a war without specific UN support, even this letter expressed serious misgivings, according to both Channel 4 and the Guardian.

Further refinements brought his advice to a short 300 word 'summary' delivered to cabinet on March 17, giving a full go-ahead for invasion. The letter was not published, according to Philippe Sands in the Guardian, a breach of ministerial protocol. Both letters have since been obtained by both the Guardian and Channel 4.

According to Mr Straw in Parliament last month, "The Attorney-General made clear in his [March 17 advice] his genuinely and independently-held view that military action in Iraq was lawful on the basis of Saddam's breach of the existing UN resolutions,".

But in the earlier and longer version, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had written, "I remain of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorise the use of force."

In the absence of such a resolution, he added, if war was pursued, "we would need to be able to demonstrate hard evidence of non-compliance and non-cooperation."

When the later, short version was put before cabinet, no-one asked what this hard evidence might be, that supposedly showed Iraq was in breach of UN Resolutions 1441, 678 and 687, despite the possibility that without such evidence, the UK might be on shaky legal ground and accused of launching a war of aggression.

"So concerned was the government about the possibility of such a [legal] case that it took steps to put together a legal team to prepare for possible international litigation," he wrote, in a Guardian story in February, which examined the two letters of legal advice.

The final report by the post-invasion Iraq Survey Group — "the best picture that could be drawn concerning the events, programs, policies, and underlying dynamics of the relationship of the former Regime to WMD over the last three decades", according to the team head, CIA Special Advisor Charles Duelfer — concludes that Iraq was not capable of any WMD-related threat at the time of the invasion, and that the sanctions were still limiting the ability to develop any capability.

Iran was the country Saddam was most afraid of, Iraq had no written strategy for WMD development, and the closest thing to actual WMDs mentioned seems to be preliminary designs for missile delivery systems that could have exceeded the UN-specified range limit of 150km for Iraqi missiles under the sanction regime.

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