The Attorney General breaks his silence: 'I believe war was lawful'

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Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, defied his critics yesterday by denying he was unduly influenced by ministers or senior military staff when giving his legal advice on the war.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, defied his critics yesterday by denying he was unduly influenced by ministers or senior military staff when giving his legal advice on the war.

In his first full interview since coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein, Lord Goldsmith told The Independent that his belief in the lawfulness of the war remained unshakeable.

"My view on the legality which I gave to Parliament was my independent view and not the result in any way of pressure from anyone, as one or two people have suggested," he said. "That's not the way I operate and that's not the way the government operates in relation to the law."

But his comments will do little to deflect the criticisms of many lawyers, including at least one senior government adviser, who said Lord Goldsmith's interpretation of international law is wrong. He remains defiant. "First, it's now very clear what the advice is based on, and Butler has confirmed that it was based on the repeated defiance of Saddam Hussein of resolutions on the terms of the unanimous resolution 1441 and his failure to take the final opportunity that was given to him by 1441 ... There are differences of view and I respect those. But I believed the war was lawful and I still do."

Lord Goldsmith will not divulge the full process behind his view but he says Lord Butler's report makes public for the first time there was "specific correspondence" with military chiefs before the war.

Opposition politicians said this persistent perception of undue influence could be instantly rebutted if the Attorney- General, the government's most senior law officer, published his advice in full. But Lord Goldsmith sees no reason for a change of policy. "As far as I am aware, there are only two occasions in the past 100 years where the actual advice of law officers has been disclosed which referred to very special situations involving legal proceedings," he said.

"I don't think the convention needs reforming. I thought the chairman of the Bar put it very well when he said it was important that the Government has complete confidence in the advice, so there can be a full and frank exchange between lawyer and client, and it is important, so we continue to maintain the rule of law. We don't want governments being frightened of asking for advice and giving the full facts on decisions that have to be made."

Lawyers in the failed prosecution of Katharine Gunn, the whistleblower at GCHQ, also called for the Attorney General's advice to be disclosed, although the decision to drop the case had nothing to do with his legal opinion. He said: "This was not based on any considerations ...some people were suggesting, [it] had to do with the legality of the war."

Lord Goldsmith's brief now includes ministerial responsibility for the courts-martial system after several military personnel made successful challenges to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over the fairness of the constitution of the tribunal that heard allegations against them.

In the past month, the Attorney General has announced two courts-martial of British soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners. Many lawyers say these cases would be better heard by the new International Criminal Court (ICC).

But Lord Goldsmith said: "I don't think it will go to the ICC because we are perfectly capable of dealing with the allegations such as they are. There should be a fair and professional investigation and independent and professional decision whether to prosecute or not. An independent tribunal will decide on guilt or innocence.

"The Army prosecutors are independent and that's why I have the general superintendence of them and they don't report to the military chain of command. There might be circumstances where there are concurrent jurisdictions with our regular civilian courts in relation to certain offences. So there's a possibility that we might end up with a trial in a Crown court."

He still has concerns about the fairness of the trials of the four Britons in Guantanamo. "I was not satisfied there were sufficient guarantees of the trial being fair by international standards and discussions continue."

After a US Supreme Court ruling, the Pentagon said the military would hold "status tribunals" to determine the legality of the detention of all the suspects at Guantanamo Bay.