THE Chilcot Inquiry yesterday published a previously classified letter from the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith to Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, in which he refused to back a war against Iraq.
The Attorney-General, the government’s legal adviser, wrote to Hoon on March 28, 2002 – a year before the war – after Hoon gave an interview to the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby.
‘I have now seen the transcript,’ wrote Goldsmith, ‘and… you made a clear statement that we would be perfectly entitled to use force without a specific United Nations resolution’.
Goldsmith reminded Hoon: ‘As you are aware, the Law Officers’ opinion has not been sought on the legality of possible action and I have not therefore offered any views on the legal position.
‘The clarity of your statement and the apparently authoritative way it was produced puts me however in a difficult position.
‘… I think you should know that I see considerable difficulties in being satisfied that military action would be justified on the basis of self-defence.
‘In particular I am not aware of the existence of material indicating the existence of an imminent threat from Iraq of the sort which would justify military action without support of a Security Council Chapter VII authorisation.’
Goldsmith again warned Hoon: ‘in the absence of further action by the Security Council, there could be considerable difficulties in justifying reliance on the original authorization to use force’.
This was a reference to a UN Security Council resolution (678) on the terms of a ceasefire at the end of the first Gulf War in 1990.
‘I would of course be happy to discuss this matter with you and Jack Straw at any time.
‘I am copying this letter to Jack Straw,’ Goldsmith wrote.
The government in fact ‘bullied’ Lord Goldsmith into a last-minute change to his legal advice, on the eve of the House of Commons vote on the war a year later in March 2003.
Questioned about the letter at the Chilcot Inquiry yesterday, Hoon, a lawyer, said the Dimbleby interview was ‘very wide-ranging’ and ‘I was trying pretty hard not to answer his questions in truth’.
Hoon claimed: ‘I gave an example of self-defence as justification that would not require a further UN resolution – if Iraq attacked British forces we would be entitled legally to respond.’
Hoon said the secret letter was simply a case of Goldsmith expressing his concern that ‘I might be boxing him in when he came to write his own opinion…
‘Self-defence wasn’t a justification ultimately – I don’t think I particularly trespassed on his area of responsibility.’
It was put to Hoon that the Attorney-General’s legal opinion on the war was crucial, given the ‘risk of prosecution of service personnel’.
‘And of politicians I might add,’ the former Defence Secretary interjected.
He said the Attorney-General gave ‘long legal advice’ that was ‘quite complex, quite dense’, but added: ‘I was quite clear there was a justification for legal military action on the basis of resolution 1441 reviving 678.’
Hoon was questioned further about Lord Goldsmith’s judgement on the legality of the war and the demand from the military for a ‘one-line sign-off’, giving them the legal okay to join the American invasion of Iraq.
‘Had Peter Goldsmith said this was unlawful there would have been no military action,’ Hoon said.
Goldsmith’s reasoning on the legality of the Iraq war was never discussed in the Cabinet.