Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Senior lawyer told Blair Iraq war may be illegal

RUSH TO WAR Recent disclosures reveal that British attorney general Lord Goldsmith never wrote an unequivocal formal legal opinion that the invasion would be lawful


The British attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, warned less than two weeks before the invasion of Iraq that military action could be ruled illegal.

The government was so concerned that it might be prosecuted that it set up a team of lawyers to prepare for legal action in an international court.

And a parliamentary answer issued days before the war in the name of Lord Goldsmith -- but presented by ministers as his official opinion before the crucial Commons vote -- was drawn up in Prime Minister Tony Blair's office in Downing Street, not in the attorney general's chambers.

The full picture of how the government manipulated the legal justification for war, and political pressure placed on its most senior law officer, was revealed in the London-based Guardian newspaper yesterday.

It appears that Lord Goldsmith never wrote an unequivocal formal legal opinion that the invasion was lawful, as demanded by Lord Boyce, chief of defense staff at the time.

In her letter of resignation in protest against the war, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, described the planned invasion of Iraq as a "crime of aggression."

She said she could not agree to military action in circumstances she described as "so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law."

Her uncompromising comments, and disclosures about Lord Goldsmith's relations with ministers in the run-up to war, appear in a book by Philippe Sands, a QC in the Matrix chambers of Blair's wife, Cherie Booth, and professor of international law at University College London.

Lord Goldsmith warned Blair in a document on March 7, 2003 that the use of force against Iraq could be illegal. It would be safer to have a second UN resolution explicitly sanctioning military action.

"So concerned was the government about the possibility of such a case that it took steps to put together a legal team to prepare for possible international litigation," Sands wrote.

The government has refused to publish the March 7 document. It was circulated to only a very few senior ministers. All Lord Goldsmith gave the Cabinet was a later oral presentation of a parliamentary answer issued under his name on March 17.

This appears contrary to the official ministerial code, which states that the complete text of opinions by the government's law officers should be seen by the full Cabinet.

On March 13, 2003, Lord Goldsmith told Lord Falconer, then a Home Office minister, and Baroness Morgan, Blair's director of political and government relations, that he believed an invasion would, after all, be legal without a new UN security council resolution, according to Sands.

On March 17, in response to a question from Baroness Ramsay, a Labour peer, Lord Goldsmith stated that it was "plain" Iraq continued to be in material breach of UN resolution 1441.

"Plain to whom?" Sands asks. It is clear, he says, that Lord Goldsmith's answer was "neither a summary nor a precis of any of the earlier advices which the attorney general had provided."

He adds: "The March 17 statement does not seem to have been accompanied by a formal and complete legal opinion or advice in the usual sense, whether written by the attorney general, or independently by a barrister retained by him."

A spokeswoman for Lord Goldsmith said yesterday: "The attorney has said on many occasions he is not going to discuss process issues."

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