Thursday, January 28, 2010

40 days that made illegal attack into legal war on Iraq.

In truth, he did better than I expected. He was obviously well prepared for this encounter, even if it all boiled down to "the Americans convinced me that they were right".

Lord Goldsmith, attorney general at the time of the Iraq war, acknowledged today that he changed his advice on the legality of the invasion twice in the five weeks leading up the start of the conflict.

He told the inquiry that he continued to believe that military action would be unlawful without a second UN resolution until as late as February 2003, but changed his position after talks with the Bush administration's lawyers in Washington.

His answers, as he took us through why previous resolutions were still effective, were designed to bore you into submission, but he managed to make a cohesive defence, even if I found his insistence that resolutions relating to the first Gulf war still applied in 2003 ultimately unsatisfying.

He relied an awful lot on the American belief that the French had conceded defeat in negotiations on 1441 by not insisting that any future UN deliberation would not be a decision making process but merely a consultative one, whilst failing to acknowledge that, by being unable to include the phrase "all necessary means" in the resolution, the Americans could also be said to have conceded defeat in these negotiations. But his final point was that the Americans didn't even feel they needed to consult the UN at all, so getting them to agree to anything at all was a form of victory.

It struck me as strange that the Attorney General would place such import on what the Americans believed was required to satisfy international law, rather than what international law actually stated, but I suppose that's partly why we got ourselves into the pickle which we did. Blair and Co. were very eager to keep in with the neo-cons, which is why we found ourselves accepting the crumbs they were willing to offer us.

And he agreed that the wording of 1441 was ambiguous, whilst insisting that it meant some kind of negotiating victory for the US and the UK, and some awful defeat for the French, when the truth is that both sides could insist it meant what they said it meant.

It was also notable, as Wilmshurt pointed out in her testimony, that Goldsmith never actually asked the French what they thought 1441 meant and, instead, relied totally on the Bush administration's reading of what had transpired during the lengthy UN negotiating process.

Goldsmith told the inquiry that the US had put down "red lines", insisting that they would not allow the UN to veto military action. There was therefore no chance of a new UN resolution. He claimed that the French, who opposed the war, privately conceded that they had lost the argument. However, his assertion was later strongly denied by a senior French official close to Jacques Chirac, the French president.

But, his reasoning as to how he came to the conclusion that the war was legal was the least satisfying of all.

Goldsmith said the official legal advice he presented to Blair on 7 March 2003 was a "green light for military action", although he warned that it carried some risk that Britain would face action in an international court.

He then heard that Lord Boyce, chief of the defence staff, and Lord Turnbull, the cabinet secretary, demanded a "clear view, a yes or no answer", the inquiry was told.

"Both were saying we are potentially at risk personally if we participate in the war if it turns out to be unlawful", Goldsmith told the inquiry. "Our troops deserved more than my saying there was a reasonable case so my responsibility was to come down on one side or another."

Asked why the case for war had suddenly become a stronger, Goldsmith replied: "It is the judgment you make of it. I was being overcautious. It wasn't good enough to say there was a reasonable case. I reached the view on balance the better view was that it [an invasion] was lawful."

It was hardly an stunning argument, it really boiled down to "the troops deserved to hear that it was legal, so I said that it was".

It was clear that the pressure placed on this man was tremendous, or as Wilmshurst put it "lamentable"; he was asked to give his decision - having for many months argued that the war would be illegal - as the troops were being flown into position ready to invade.

Bearing those circumstances in mind, one can have a modicum of sympathy for him. He kept giving them an answer which they didn't want to hear. So, they placed the troops in danger of facing criminal charges and then insisted that he decide whether any action they took would, under British law, be criminal or not. He decided not. I can disagree with that decision whilst fully understanding why he felt the need to come to it. They had him in a box by that point.
"Greenstock was making some good points, but there were some I wasn't persuaded by," he said. "He hadn't got me there yet".
The feeling that he was under pressure to give the advice that they wanted to hear, rather than simply offer what he thought was legal or illegal was unmistakable. They were coming at him from all angles, determined that he would tell them it was legal. In the end, for the sake of the troops, it appears that he wilted.

But it is simply impossible for Blair to now maintain his defence that he was simply following legal advice. Goldsmith, whether he wanted to or not, gave the impression that much pressure was placed upon him to give the government the answer they wanted to hear.

It was impossible listening to him to conclude that he was simply being asked for his legal opinion.


Phillipe Sands:

By the 13 March 2003, when the military said it would not go to war on the basis of the only full legal advice that Lord Goldsmith wrote, the attorney general had his finger on the trigger. If he had declined to provide a further view, Britain would not have gone to war. What emerged from the hearing was that Tony Blair treated the attorney general as an afterthought, a box to be ticked at the end of the process. For the most part, Lord Goldsmith was kept out of the loop, and only called on to give legal advice very late in the game, once the troops were already deployed.

The fact that Britain's decision to go to war was based on a series of private conversations and anecdotes that gave only one side of the story is deeply disturbing. The fact that little, if any, of this material would be admissible or reliable as evidence in a court of law seems to have been completely ignored by Lord Goldsmith. Moreover, the growing public record now contains a number of inconsistent and contradictory statements from the former attorney general.

He was polished, he was assured. Was he accurate? No. Was he persuasive on the reasons for his late change. Absolutely not.

The doubts persist, and more.

So, relying on what a court would define as hearsay, the Attorney General gave the green light. With the troops already deployed, he possibly felt that he had no other choice.

Click here for full article.


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