Peter Goldsmith: Hot under the collar

Accusations of complicity in the torture of terrorism suspects have made the former attorney general an angry man – but he's still not quite free to set the record straight. John Rentoul meets Peter Goldsmith
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Lord Goldsmith went on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday to "welcome" the inquiry into allegations that the Government in which he served, and to which he was the chief legal adviser, was complicit in the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects.

But to every question about evidence suggesting that there was such complicity, he said he did not know, and that was why it was important to have the inquiry, which David Cameron said on Tuesday would be set up under Sir Peter Gibson.

It was a restrained performance, but Lord Goldsmith is an angry man. When I spoke to him, he made clear that he resented the suggestion that, as Tony Blair's Attorney General, he showed a culpable lack of curiosity about torture, to which George Bush's administration turned after 9/11: "I want to be very clear about this: that no encouragement, complicity in relation to torture came from me whatsoever. There has been a lot of misinformation in relation to that, which has made me angry."

The trouble is, he says, that he feels constrained in responding to that misinformation because of the rule that his legal advice to the Government should remain confidential. "That is an important principle. It is not an expediency. It's a principle, because that is the only way that you can get your government to tell you everything so that you can give advice, warts and all."

It is a principle that also frustrated him over the legality of the Iraq invasion. Ever since the war against Saddam Hussein, his insistence on the confidentiality of his advice made it look as if he and Mr Blair had something to hide. Now, as I speak to him in the City office of Debevoise & Plimpton, the US law firm in which he is a partner, we come up against the same problem.

The heart of the question of complicity in torture, I say, is the change in the guidelines issued to the security services. I was thinking of the memo dated January 2002, as terrorist suspects were being rounded up after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. This advised British officers what to do if they became aware of mistreatment of detainees held by US forces: "Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this."

Lord Goldsmith gives the same unforthcoming reply he gave to the Today programme: "This is one of the issues that I'm sure that Sir Peter Gibson will need to go into." But now he tries to explain why he cannot go further: "I'd rather not go into the detail for two reasons. One is that I will have to go back anyway and see precisely what the steps in that were. And, second, I don't want to get into that area, which we have been in before, about, 'What's the Attorney General's advice?'"

But if he does not engage with the specifics, that encourages those who believe the worst of him, a problem that he admits "I've been finding it difficult to deal with". He goes on: "But I just hope that none of that has led to people thinking that, 'Oh well, he didn't really believe this, he was OK with this stuff, he didn't mind as long as there was some sense that he was tipping the wink.' Absolutely not. I have been a lawyer all my life. I don't believe any of this stuff. I think it's wrong morally, and I may be ridiculously puritanical as far as some people are concerned. But I believe that there are other ways of dealing with these problems." Torture, he concludes, "is counter-productive at the end of the day and absolutely wrong in principle".

He is visibly happier when talking about politics generally. He offers a mixed review of the coalition: "David Cameron is playing a blinder. In handling the hand he was dealt, he's doing it very skilfully. I still believe that the fault lines between the two parts of the coalition are frankly very deep. I suppose California hasn't actually fallen off the edge, despite the San Andreas Fault, but I just find it hard to believe that it's possible for the coalition to continue for 12 months without those fault lines becoming fatal. There is a very strong chance that the Liberal Democrats will live to regret this bitterly."

He is surprisingly waspish about one of his former colleagues, Ken Macdonald, his fellow law officer as Director of Public Prosecutions. Lord Macdonald is carrying out a review for the coalition of whether it should cut the maximum period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects from 28 to 14 days: "I had to ban him from going on the airwaves to argue in favour of 90 days at the time that Tony was trying to do it."

Lord Goldsmith himself opposed both Mr Blair's attempt to increase it to 90 days and Gordon Brown's 42 days. That was one of several of his differences with Mr Blair over Britain's response to al-Qa'ida-inspired terrorism.

He also advertises his opposition to Mr Blair and David Blunkett in arguing for the release of British detainees at Guantanamo: "I was the man who insisted, against the wishes of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, that we should bring back to Britain people that George Bush said were dangerous."

To specific allegations of complicity in American human rights abuses, however, his defence is that he made the correct legal position clear and was assured that it was being observed. When British agencies received information that might have been obtained by torture, he stressed the "absolute necessity of discouraging other states from engaging in that sort of behaviour".

But shouldn't he have cottoned on sooner, after 9/11, that the Americans were doing things of which he would disapprove? "I don't know. And that's one of the things that I think we should know. Was the wool being pulled over our eyes? Were there things going on under our noses that we should have seen? Or – this is the whole issue – did people know what was going on and prefer to turn a blind eye to it because they would have known – I hope they would have known – exactly what the attitude of central government would have been, certainly if any of this had come to my office?"

But did he do enough to find out whether a blind eye was being turned? "I don't know what else I could have done. I received assurances from senior members of the government and senior officials."

I get the impression that he thinks that the British military and secret services have not been straight with him, and that he is not sure about his political colleagues. But he offers a defence of Mr Blair when I put to him the common allegation that the former prime minister paid only lip service to human rights: "I really hope that's not right. Blair, as a lawyer, understood what the requirements of the law were. He found, as every politician I've had to deal with from time to time finds, that the law can be inconvenient. But he recognised that that didn't mean you could ignore it."

Lord Goldsmith is pained that his integrity has been doubted, including the "unpleasant and wrong" suggestion that he was "leant on" to change his advice on Iraq – which he says he "dealt with" at the Chilcot inquiry and about which he refuses to speak again until that inquiry reports.

On torture, he says: "If I had been misled I would be angry. It would be a breach of the trust that ought to exist between senior officials and the Attorney General." But in the end he can do no more than "hope" that he will be judged to have done what he could, and that if others kept things from him he will not be found wanting for failing to find out.

Read the full transcript of this interview at

Curriculum vitae

1950 Born in Liverpool, the son of a solicitor. Went to John Lennon's grammar school, Quarry Bank High School, in Liverpool.

1968 Studied law at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he was president of the Junior Common Room, and University College London.

1972 Called to the Bar; practised in commercial and banking law.

1974 Married Joy Elterman; three sons, one daughter.

1987 Appointed Queen's Counsel.

1995 Elected the youngest ever chairman of the Bar Council.

1999 Created Baron Goldsmith of Allerton in the County of Merseyside.

2001 Appointed Attorney General by Tony Blair; three months later the terrorist attacks on the USA "changed the rules of the game", according to the Prime Minister.

2002-03 Advised on the status in international law of British involvement in military action in Iraq (pictured with US opposite number John Ashcroft).

2007 Left government when Blair resigned; became European chair of litigation at the London office of the American law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

2008 Admitted as a solicitor to the Supreme Court of England and Wales.

2010 Gave evidence to Iraq inquiry in January.