The truth behind Goldsmith's equivocal answer as war machine gathered pace in drive for Iraq

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The Independent Online

The explosive disclosure that the Attorney General gave Tony Blair six reasons why war on Iraq might be illegal explains why Downing Street has steadfastly resisted the publication of Lord Goldsmith's advice.

The explosive disclosure that the Attorney General gave Tony Blair six reasons why war on Iraq might be illegal explains why Downing Street has steadfastly resisted the publication of Lord Goldsmith's advice.

The Prime Minister has flatly refused repeated demands for the Attorney General's advice to be published. Demands for it to be released under the Freedom of Information Act were resisted.

One senior Labour figure said last night: "At least now we know why". The document cuts through all the obfuscation in Downing Street and shows that Tony Blair misled his Cabinet and the British public when he said he had received unequivocal advice that the war was legal.

The 13-page report that Lord Goldsmith delivered on 7 March, 2003, was hedged with doubts and misgivings. In the rush to war, Lord Goldsmith virtually wrung his hands at the dilemma he faced in trying to deliver advice that would satisfy a Prime Minister set on military action.

He said in law it was for the UN to decide whether Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions, not Mr Blair; he had doubts that war could be supported under the terms of resolution 1441; he cautioned that a second resolution might be needed; he warned that they could not rely on the earlier UN resolution 678 passed to eject Saddam from Kuwait; he pointed out that Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, was still searching for weapons of mass destruction; and he said the US may be satisfied it was legal, but that did not apply to the UK.

Some of Lord Goldsmith's critics have suggested that he is a small-town lawyer, out of his depth in the international field. In fact, Lord Goldsmith, 55, was a respected international human rights lawyer, when he was given a life peerage by Mr Blair in 1999 and appointed Attorney General.

It was not only Mr Blair who wanted guarantees that the war was legal. Lord Boyce, then chief of the defence staff, also demanded assurances that his armed forces were not open to charges of illegality in Iraq.

Having failed to come to a definitive view on the legality of the war, Lord Goldsmith was under pressure by Downing Street to refine his advice. On 13 March, he met Lord Falconer, a personal friend of the Prime Minister, and Baroness Morgan, Mr Blair's political secretary, at Downing Street for an informal meeting, where no notes appear to have been taken.

The next day, Lord Goldsmith's private secretary wrote to the Prime Minister's office, seeking reassurances that in Downing Street's opinion Saddam was in breach of resolution 1441 because he was concealing his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Mr Blair's private secretary obliged, confirming it was the Prime Minister's view that Saddam was in breach of the UN resolution. The answer was based on intelligence now known to be - at best - faulty. Based on that assurance, Lord Goldsmith changed his mind. He removed the equivocations and delivered a two-page document to the Cabinet saying unequivocally that military action was legal.

The Cabinet meeting was recorded in her memoirs by Clare Short, the then International Development Secretary, who later resigned in protest at the war. "I then attempted to initiate a discussion. I asked why it was so late and whether he had changed his mind. No discussion was allowed. The paper he provided was then published as an answer to a parliamentary question."

The countdown to war had begun. The war machine was wound up and ready to go, and two days after Lord Goldsmith delivered his two-page report missiles exploded in Baghdad.

Lord Goldsmith earlier this year denied his advice to Parliament was written by Number 10. "As I have always made clear, I set out in the answer my own genuinely held, independent view that military action was lawful under the existing [UN] Security Council resolutions," he said. "The answer did not purport to be a summary of my confidential legal advice to government."

Those words contained a worm of doubt. Why should he deny that it was a summary of his earlier advice to the Prime Minister? The answer, revealed now, is that he knew if ever it were published, his 13-page report would show he had advised Mr Blair that going to war in Iraq might well be illegal.