Clare Short: Was Attorney General leant on to sanction war?

In her own words, the former cabinet minister questions the legality of conflict

28 February 2004


This week the charges against Katharine Gun, a former employee of GCHQ, were dropped in a way that posed once again big questions about the legitimacy of the rush to war in Iraq. She was accused of passing a document to The Observer which showed the US asking the UK for help to spy on non-permanent members of the Security Council: the purpose was to strengthen the ability of the US and UK to "persuade" them to vote for war.

Her lawyers made clear that her defence would rest on the argument that her action was justified because the war was illegal. They therefore intended to call for evidence on how the Attorney General came to the conclusion that there was legal authority for war. The lawyers concluded that the case was dropped because he did not want his advice to be subject to scrutiny.

I was asked to comment by the Today programme. I made two points. The first was that if it was illegitimate to contemplate bugging the offices of fellow members of the Security Council, then our security services should stop distributing transcripts of Kofi Annan's private telephone calls. My second comment was that the claims of Ms Gun's lawyers should be considered alongside the claim that one of the reasons for the exaggeration of the threat from WMD in Iraq was to manufacture legal authority for war.

The response of the establishment has been extraordinary. They are faced with two allegations: one that the Attorney General's legal advice authorising war in Iraq was manipulated in dubious ways, the other that Britain is intruding on the privacy of Mr Annan's phone calls.

There were howls of outrage that the British people should be informed that the powers of their state were being misused to dishonour the secretary general of the United Nations. There was very limited comment on the claim that the Attorney General may have misused his powers to authorise a war that has led to the death of 20,000 people and to an increase in bitterness and instability in the Middle East and to a strengthening of al-Qa'ida.

The Prime Minister says that I am being deeply irresponsible and endangering the British security services. Journalists ask if I should be ejected from the Labour Party and/or the Privy Council. And some - who are not in a position to know - suggest that there are no transcripts of Mr Annan's phone calls. I'm afraid that there is no question that such transcripts were regularly circulated.

It is likely that the Prime Minister was unaware of this. He's not a man for detail but he is in a position to stop the practice. But the suggestion that there is any threat to our national security or intelligence services from the exposure of the fact that such transcripts are circulated is laughable.

The suggestion, however, that the Attorney General's opinion may have been manipulated is very serious. There is no doubt that the way in which a truncated opinion authorising war appeared at the very last minute was very odd. Foreign Office lawyers disagreed on the legality of war. Senior officials in Whitehall worried that they were being asked to prepare for illegal action. I was informed that the military would not move without the Attorney General's authorisation. Then on the day Robin Cook resigned, the Attorney General came to the Cabinet, sat in Robin's seat and circulated two sides of A4 which said that successive UN resolutions provided legal authority for war. I tried to ask why he was so late and if there was any doubt but was told in no uncertain terms there was to be no discussion. No other advice was made available across Whitehall.

As I go over and over events leading up to the rush to war, I cannot help but conclude that the way in which the Attorney General's opinion was produced and handled was very strange. It is hard not to suspect that he had doubts and was leant upon.

And, for the record, I am not at all bitter. I am not even angry. I am still astonished and sad and disappointed. I believe that our country and my party have been deeply dishonoured, large numbers of people have lost their lives and the world made more bitterly divided and dangerous. I committed myself to the Labour Party very many years ago because I believed it to be an instrument of moral advance and justice at home and abroad.

I believe the best way to correct the mistakes is to persuade Tony Blair to stand down. I have made no secret of this view. I have not enjoyed reaching these conclusions but they are my serious opinions. I do not support my party right or wrong. I want to preserve my party as an instrument of justice. I also think we should stop invading the privacy of the secretary general of the United Nations.