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'Burn it. Destroy it.' Preview of the haters' reaction to the Chilcot report

John Rentoul
Monday 02 November 2015 11:57 GMT

For the sake of completeness, let us wheel out the old logo of the Iraq Inquiry Coverage Rebuttal Service, to deal with the latest story in the Mail on Sunday about the Attorney General's legal advice on the Iraq invasion.

To pre-empt the inevitable reaction, some preliminaries. The Iraq war was a disaster. Too many people died as a result of it. But it would have gone ahead whether or not Tony Blair, the Cabinet and the House of Commons decided to join the US invasion. And the decision they made was a reasonable one on the basis of what was known at the time.

The unattributed exclamation, recalled 12 years later, "burn it, destroy it," adds a bit of colour to the story of the Attorney General's advice. Namely that the long advice of 7 March 2003 that military action was lawful – the precise opposite of the Mail on Sunday's report – caused irritation and frustration in 10 Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office because it was so cautiously balanced.

Alastair Campbell recorded in his diary: Blair "knew that if there was any nuance at all", Robin Cook and Clare Short "would be straight out saying the advice was that it was not legal, the Attorney General was casting doubt on the legal basis for war".

Peter Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was persuaded to write a shorter version for publication – on 17 March 2003 – that left out the discussion of the ways in which the decision might be challenged in the courts, and simply restated his conclusion that military action would be lawful.

For all the hoo-ha since, that conclusion has been vindicated, and his concerns that the decision might be challenged have turned out to be too cautious. No legal action anywhere in the world has even been started – in instructive contrast to the tasteless and common rhetorical excess of using "war crime" to mean a foreign policy decision with which one disagrees.

If anyone did say "burn it", it would have been an expression of frustration at Goldsmith's naivety. The Mail on Sunday's own report says that Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, who received it "second-hand", "did not regard it as an instruction to be followed".

The 7 March 2003 document, which was not burnt or destroyed but leaked to try to damage Blair before the 2005 election, is still worth reading. It is a thoughtful and thorough private discussion of domestic and international law. At no point does it use the journalistic shorthand of suggesting that military action might be "illegal". Previously, the Attorney General had thought that it would be "contrary to international law", in the same way that it could be argued that the Kosovo action was. But he was persuaded otherwise, and his second, published, opinion was the correct one, and the one on which he should be judged.

Still, "burn it, destroy it" does at least give the Unreasonables their headline for the Chilcot report, when it is published in June or July next year and fails to endorse their conspiracy theories.

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