Hesitation, deviation, and repetition: Straw under fire over legality of war

On Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, John Humphrys questioned the Foreign Secretary over the Attorney General's advice on the invasion of Iraq. It was a classic clash. This is an edited transcript
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John Humphrys: There is only one full week left in the election campaign and it has changed ... Iraq has become a big election story, and that's because somebody leaked to The Mail on Sunday a document which raises important questions about Mr [Tony] Blair's claims that the war was legal. Prime ministers get their legal advice from the Attorney General. He, Lord Goldsmith, did tell Mr Blair it was legal. But what's at issue is whether he changed his mind under political pressure.

John Humphrys: There is only one full week left in the election campaign and it has changed ... Iraq has become a big election story, and that's because somebody leaked to The Mail on Sunday a document which raises important questions about Mr [Tony] Blair's claims that the war was legal. Prime ministers get their legal advice from the Attorney General. He, Lord Goldsmith, did tell Mr Blair it was legal. But what's at issue is whether he changed his mind under political pressure.

He has always denied that, but Mr Blair has refused to publish the details of any earlier advice from Lord Goldsmith. Now those details have been published and they show Lord Goldsmith entered a whole string of caveats. When he answered a question in the House of Lords 10 days later he made no reference to any of the caveats. And a few months ago, Mr Blair said the advice had been clear throughout. Indeed, Mr Blair went further, and he said it was unequivocal. We now know it wasn't. Why were we denied that information?

Jack Straw: Er, that's not true, John. The advice which the Attorney General set out to the House of Lords on 17 March, the day before the debate in the Commons, was unequivocal and it set out that resolution 1441 had effectively revived the authority for use of force under Security Council resolution 687 because of Iraq's clear further material breach in its refusal to comply with its disarmament obligations.

Humphrys: Mr Straw, I'm asking you about questions surrounding the legality of the war and the way that was presented to the nation by the Prime Minister... We did not know about those six areas of legal concern. Mr Blair said it was unequivocal. If I ask you, as a lawyer, for advice on something, and you say to me, 'Here are the six areas I am concerned about, but on balance I think what you're proposing is legal', I would not describe that advice as unequivocal. Would you?

Straw: Well ... what I would describe as unequivocal is the clear view that the Attorney General set out in the Lords on 17 March.

JH: Yes, but all Lord Goldsmith did was produce a 337-word written reply in the Lords. That's all.

JS: Yes, but, hang on a second. Lord Butler also looked at the whole of the legal advice as well.

JH: ... I'm not talking about Lord Butler. I'm talking about what the Attorney General said to the Prime Minister.

JS: No. And I was present, John. You were not present at the Cabinet on 17 March. Lord Butler's advice to the Cabinet was very clear. And Lord Butler's advice was fully reflected in the view he offered on 17 March later in the day. Now ...

JH: No! Look, there is a ministerial code of conduct that requires the full text of any legal advice to be made available to such cabinet meetings. No other papers were provided. And that is the reality. I wasn't there but if you're going to tell me I'm wrong about that I'd be interested to hear it.

JS: Yeah and also ... if you ... I haven't ... if you look at ... I've dealt with this, and ... keep your hair on. Er, I dealt with this ...

JH: It's a serious issue and I'm trying to be serious about it.

JS: It's a very, very serious issue. The Attorney General came to his view, he offered the view, it was unequivocal, the Prime Minister was right. There have been four separate inquiries into this, including...

JH: No there haven't.

JS: Yes, excuse me ...

JH: No there haven't.

JS: Yes, yes excuse me a second. There have been four separate inquiries into ...

JH: No.

JS: None of those have said for a second that the Prime Minister lied or deceived anybody ...

JH: Right, let me take you up on that. There have indeed been four inquiries. None of those reviews address the question that you have just raised.

JS: Well, with great respect...

JH: None of them.

JS: I just want to say this, John; there were always, around the world and in the United Kingdom, two views about whether or not a military action without a second resolution following 1441 was going to be justified. Some people took the view that there had to be a second resolution. Others - and we in the United Kingdom were clear about this - took the view that it imposed very clear, further obligations on Saddam Hussein. And if he failed to meet those obligations, the authority for the use of force, set out in an earlier resolution, 687 and 678, would be revived.

JH: Before you leave that, it was the view of the Attorney General in that document on 7 March, that it was the UN, not Mr Blair, not the UK government that should rule on resolutions breaches.

JS: I am not confirming the contents of what is alleged to have been ...

JH: Well then, it makes this a very difficult conversation because you can put up any number of smokescreens. Can't you?

JS: Well no, with great respect. I'm not confirming what is alleged to have been in a ... leaked document.

JH: Are you denying it?

JS: All parties ...

JH: Are you denying it?

JS: I'm simply not confirming it.

JH: So what does that mean? I'm sorry, I'm not going to let you get away with that because if you're not denying it then I and the listeners of this programme are entitled to assume it's accurate, aren't they?

JS: Well, they're not entitled to assume it's accurate, either. But let me just deal with this issue. There was always a question as to whether or not 1441 revived the use of force set out in 687 and 678. Now ... when this issue was before the Commons in the Blair government, in 1998, over the US-UK operation against Iraq, the Liberal Democrats took the view that there was no need even for a first resolution 1441...

JH: I'm really not concerned with what view the Liberal Democrats took on anything ...I'm trying to talk to you about the Attorney General and the advice he gave to the Prime Minister and the way the Prime Minister presented that advice to us, and you seem remarkably reluctant to address that question.

JS: I'm certainly addressing it, and the advice was very clearly set out in the Attorney General's view that he put before the Lords ... And I supplemented that with a lengthy document, some seven pages, which set out the legal background to that decision.

JH: Your own legal department in the Foreign Office thought that the war was illegal.

JS: Well, with great respect, some lawyers did and some lawyers didn't ...

JH: Well, we rather assumed, if I may say so, that our Prime Minister reads the advice he is given by his own Foreign Office.

JS: Of course, well ... let me just ... let me just make this point, right, because I want to answer your question, rather than, er, well, I don't want, I want, I want to answer the question. The issue was this: did 1441 revive or not the authority for military action?

JH: I'm sorry, but that isn't the issue.

JS: 1441 is at the heart of this...

JH: No, at the heart of this is the advice the Prime Minister got, and why he did not tell us that there were all these caveats. Six different caveats and that is why, now we realise of course, he didn't publish that information from the Attorney General.

JS: The Attorney General's advice was never going to be published, whatever it said, because Attorney General's advice is never published ...

JH: No, there is a precedent ...

JS: Very, very limited, and very specific ...

JH: But there is precedent and this could hardly be a more important matter; why we went to war.

JS: What indeed, and what has often not been the case, is that the Attorney General's view has often not been published. The Attorney General has repeated on many, many occasions ...

JH: Hmmph.

JS: ... that that view set out in the Lords on 17 March was an accurate reflection of his opinion. That remains his view. Now I also just want to say this. Some of those who argue that the legal advice was somehow wrong are basically trying to say the war was not justified ...

JH: I'm not putting that point to you, Mr Straw. I am not asking you whether the advice was right or wrong ...What I am asking you is: why it was that the Attorney General drew up this document with a whole series of important caveats, and yet, when the PM told us about the advice he had received, he said it was "unequivocal"? And it manifestly was not unequivocal.

JS: Look, what I can tell you John, is this, right, if you'll just allow me the time. When 1441 was passed, it did revive 678 and 687... We hoped very much that we could get a second resolution, to secure a consensus in the security council. We also hoped that that, in itself, would not be necessary because Iraq would come fully into compliance.

JH: All right.

JS: The issue, the issue was: was it an appropriate stage to take military action? Some said containment might work, but the truth was containment had fallen apart. Where we have now got to is a far better Iraq, and those who opposed the war, and I understand why they do that, need to understand that much good has come from it.

JH: We could have a very long discussion about that, but we've no time for that.

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