Goldsmith letter - no legality
By Simon Walters, Mail on Sunday Political Editor
Last updated at 1:48 AM on 29th November 2009
An explosive secret letter that exposes how Tony Blair lied over the legality of the Iraq War can be revealed.
The Chilcot Inquiry into the war will interrogate the former Prime Minister over the devastating 'smoking gun' memo, which warned him in the starkest terms the war was illegal.
The Mail on Sunday can disclose that Attorney General Lord Goldsmith wrote the letter to Mr Blair in July 2002 - a full eight months before the war - telling him that deposing Saddam Hussein was a blatant breach of international law.
It was intended to make Mr Blair call off the invasion, but he ignored it. Instead, a panicking Mr Blair issued instructions to gag Lord Goldsmith, banned him from attending Cabinet meetings and ordered a cover-up to stop the public finding out.
He even concealed the bombshell information from his own Cabinet, fearing it would spark an anti-war revolt. The only people he told were a handful of cronies who were sworn to secrecy.
Lord Goldsmith was so furious at his treatment he threatened to resign - and lost three stone as Mr Blair and his cronies bullied him into backing down.
Sources close to the peer say he was 'more or less pinned to the wall' in a Downing Street showdown with two of Mr Blair's most loyal aides, Lord Falconer and Baroness Morgan.
The revelations follow a series of testimonies by key figures at the Chilcot Inquiry who have questioned Mr Blair's judgment and honesty, and the legality of the war.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that the inquiry has been given Lord Goldsmith's explosive letter, and that Mr Blair and the peer are likely to be interrogated about it when they give evidence in the New Year.
Lord Goldsmith gave qualified legal backing to the conflict days before the war broke out in March 2003 in a brief, carefully drafted statement. As The Mail on Sunday disclosed three years ago, even that was a distortion as Lord Goldsmith had told Mr Blair a week earlier he could be breaking international law.
But today's revelations show that Lord Goldsmith told Mr Blair at the outset, and in writing, that military action against Iraq was totally illegal.
The disclosures deal a massive blow to Mr Blair's hopes of proving he acted in good faith when he and George Bush declared war on Iraq. And they are likely to fuel further calls for Mr Blair to be charged with war crimes.
Lord Goldsmith's 'smoking gun' letter came six days after a Cabinet meeting on July 23, 2002, at which Ministers were secretly told that the US and UK were set on 'regime change' in Iraq.
The peer, who attended the meeting, was horrified. On July 29, he wrote to Mr Blair on a single side of A4 headed notepaper from his office.
Friends say it was no easy thing for him to do. He was a close friend of Mr Blair, who gave him his peerage and Cabinet post. The typed letter was addressed by hand, 'Dear Tony', and signed by hand, 'Yours, Peter'.
In it, Lord Goldsmith set out in uncompromising terms why he believed war was illegal. He pointed out that:
- War could not be justified purely on the grounds of 'regime change'.
- Although United Nations rules permitted 'military intervention on the basis of self-defence', they did not apply in this case because Britain was not under threat from Iraq.
- While the UN allowed 'humanitarian intervention' in certain instances, that too was not relevant to Iraq.
- It would be very hard to rely on earlier UN resolutions in the Nineties approving the use of force against Saddam.
Lord Goldsmith ended his letter by saying 'the situation might change' - although in legal terms, it never did.
The letter caused pandemonium in Downing Street. Mr Blair was furious. No10 told Lord Goldsmith he should never have put his views on paper, and he was not to do so again unless told to by Mr Blair.
The reason was simple: if it became public, Lord Goldsmith's letter could make it impossible for Mr Blair to fulfil his secret pledge to back Mr Bush in any circumstances. More importantly, it could never be expunged from the record as copies were stored in No10 and in the Attorney General's office.
Although Lord Goldsmith had Cabinet status, he attended meetings only when asked. After his letter, he barely attended another meeting until the eve of the war. Mr Blair kept him out to reduce the chance of him blurting out his views to other Ministers.
When Mr Blair is quizzed by the Chilcot Inquiry, he will be asked why he never admitted he was told from the start that the war was illegal.
Equally ominously for Mr Blair, a defiant Lord Goldsmith is ready to defend the letter when he appears before the inquiry. Friends of the peer, widely derided for his role in the Iraq War, believe it will vindicate him.
A source close to Lord Goldsmith said: 'He assumed, perhaps naively, that Blair wanted a proper legal assessment. No10 went berserk because they knew that once he had put it in writing, it could not be unsaid.
'They liked to do things with no note-takers, and often no officials, present. That way, there was no record. Everything could be denied.
'Goldsmith threatened to resign at least once. He lost three stone in that period. He is an honourable man and it was a terribly stressful experience.'
Lord Goldsmith's wife Joy, a prominent figure in New Labour dining circles, played a crucial role in talking him out of quitting.
'Joy was always very ambitious on Peter's behalf and did not want to see him throw it all away,' said a source.
Lord Goldsmith's letter contradicts Mr Blair's repeated statements, before, during and after the war on its legality.
In April 2005, the BBC's Jeremy Paxman repeatedly asked him if he had seen confidential Foreign Office advice that the war would be illegal without specific UN support.
Mr Blair said: 'No. I had the Attorney General's advice to guide me.' At best, it was dissembling. At worst, it was a blatant lie.
Mr Blair knew all along that Lord Goldsmith had told him the war was illegal, and that when the peer finally gave it his cautious backing, he did so only under extreme duress.
The Mail on Sunday has also obtained new evidence about the way Lord Goldsmith was bullied into backing the war at the 11th hour.
He was summoned to a No10 meeting with Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer and Baroness Sally Morgan, Mr Blair's senior Labour 'fixer' in Downing Street. No officials were present.
A source said: 'Falconer and Morgan performed a pincer movement on Goldsmith. They more or less pinned him up against the wall and told him to do what Blair wanted.'
After the meeting, Lord Goldsmith issued his brief statement stating the war was lawful.
Lord Falconer said in response to the latest revelations: 'This version of events is totally false. The meeting was Lord Goldsmith's suggestion and he told us what his view was.'
Baroness Morgan has also denied trying to pressure Lord Goldsmith.
The legal row came to a head days before the war, when the UN refused to approve military action. Stranded, Mr Blair had to win Lord Goldsmith's legal backing, not least because British military chiefs refused to send troops into action without it.
On March 17, three days before the conflict started, Lord Goldsmith said the war was legal on the basis of previous UN resolutions threatening action against Saddam - even though in his secret letter of July 2002, he had ruled out this argument.
A spokesman for Lord Goldsmith said: 'This letter is probably in the bundle that has been supplied to the inquiry by the Attorney General's department. It is presumed they will want to discuss it with him. If so, Lord Goldsmith is content to do so.
'His focus is on the legality of the war, its morality is for others.'
A spokesman for the Chilcot Inquiry said: 'We are content we have obtained all the relevant documents.'
A spokesman for Mr Blair refused to say why the former Prime Minister had not disclosed Lord Goldsmith's July 2002 letter.
'The Attorney General set out the legal basis for action in Iraq in March 2003,' he said. 'Beyond that, we are not getting into a running commentary before Mr Blair appears in front of the Chilcot committee.'
Leading international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands said: 'The Chilcot Inquiry must make Lord Goldsmith's note of 29 July, 2002, publicly available to restore public confidence in the Government.'