The A4 War: What have the Attorney General and the Prime Minister got to hide?

Was the paper used by Tony Blair to justify war a legal 'view', a legal 'opinion' or a definitive 'statement'? By Raymond Whitaker

13 March 2005

Independent

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, became increasingly isolated this weekend as the row over his secret legal advice on the Iraq war drags the Government into a mire of denials and conflicting statements, intensifying the pressure for his advice to be revealed.

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, added to the confusion last week when he said a 337-word, nine-paragraph document from Lord Goldsmith on the eve of the war was the "definitive statement" of his views. "There is no other version." This prompted newspapers to report that Britain had gone to war on the basis of a "single page of A4".

But in response, the Attorney General's office pointed to a meeting he had attended the previous month with senior Downing Street officials, including Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, and Sir David Manning, the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser. Lord Goldsmith told them his view of the legal position, and put it in writing on 7 March 2003.

The document was longer than the "definitive statement" issued 10 days later. In 13 pages it is understood to conclude that Britain could go to war without a new UN Security Council resolution, but admits that a court might not be convinced that the war was legal. Only a few people at the top of the Government have seen this document. When the Cabinet met on 17 March 2003, two days before the first bombs fell on Baghdad, all it saw was the nine-paragraph statement, shorn of all caveats, which was also issued on the same day as a parliamentary answer.

Why was this later statement produced? Because senior military officers, led by the Chief of Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, demanded an assurance that their troops would not find themselves charged with war crimes if Iraq was invaded. The "single page of A4" also helped to convince waverers like Clare Short, then a cabinet member, and Labour backbenchers to vote for war. But it has led the Government, and Lord Goldsmith, into a tangle of their own making.

The Attorney General has denied being "leaned on" to change his view, and he has been inconsistent on the nine-paragraph statement, calling it a "summary" of his advice and later denying that it was a summary (see box). In response to the Prime Minister describing it as his "opinion" - a term that has a precise technical meaning for lawyers - Lord Goldsmith has insisted it was merely his "view". Yet the motion Mr Blair put to the Commons on 18 March 2003 calling for war also referred to the Attorney General's "opinion", and Lord Goldsmith did not demur.

Sir Andrew, in evidence to the Commons Public Affairs Committee, appeared to try to lay the matter to rest. "There is not a longer version of that advice," he said. "There is no other version. This is the definitive statement of his views. In his view it was sufficient for his colleagues to be assured that he thought there was a legal basis for military action. It does not purport to be a summary of his advice. It was the definitive advice that he had reached."

No sooner had the Cabinet Secretary done so, Lord Goldsmith drew attention to his earlier written statement.

Why not release the 13-page document and end the controversy? Some in official circles say it is far from explosive. But the Government is clinging to the principle that its legal advice should remain confidential, despite precedents for publishing such advice. It has refused a request under the Freedom of Information Act, a decision that is to be reviewed by the Information Commissioner.

"The real reason for keeping it secret is that it would show how the later document was 'sexed up', with all caveats removed - just like the row over the dossier on Iraq's weapons," said a legal authority.

The question of WMD was crucial to Lord Goldsmith: he was assured by the Prime Minister that Iraq was still producing illegal weapons before he announced that it was "plain" that Iraq was in material breach of UN resolutions.

"Does the opinion stand up if the facts on which it was based have fallen down?" asked Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet just before the war. "How on earth can the Government go on resisting the reasonable call for the Attorney General's full advice to be published?"

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said there were two "material considerations" in the minds of those who voted for war on Iraq: "First, that the threat from weapons of mass destruction was so acute that only military action would do; and second, that the opinion of the Attorney General was that it was lawful to do so. The motion which the House passed makes that clear beyond any doubt.

"But what we now know is that the claims about WMD were unfounded, and that there is an apparent inconsistency between the written opinion of the Attorney General and the written answer which he gave in the House of Lords on the first day of the debate.

"Those who voted in favour must now be wondering if they did so on the basis of unreliable information."

THE PAPER TRAIL

7 MARCH 2003

Following a meeting with Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, and Sir David Manning, foreign policy adviser, Lord Goldsmith produces a 13-page document weighing legal arguments, complete with caveats

13-17 MARCH 2003

A nine-paragraph document is drawn up to persuade Sir Michael Boyce, the Army's chief of staff, that British troops would not be charged with war crimes in the event of an attack

17 MARCH 2003

The Prime Minister presents the nine-paragraph document 'on one side of an A4 page' to a cabinet meeting to convince waverers, including Clare Short, of the justification for an attack on Iraq. The document is made public

19 MARCH 2003

Two days after the A4 document is produced in Cabinet and used by Tony Blair in the House of Commons, the shock and awe campaign begins with the bombing of Baghdad

WHAT THEY SAID

The Attorney General came to the Cabinet [on 17 March 2003] and gave his opinion in detail, and was there able to answer any queries.

Tony Blair, parliamentary answer, 9 March 2005

I said this was odd, coming so late. Everyone said: 'Oh Clare, be quiet.' No one would allow any discussion.

Clare Short, 27 February 2005, recalling the same Cabinet meeting

This statement was a summary of my view of the legal position, rather than a detailed consideration... The statement was consistent with my detailed legal advice.

Lord Goldsmith, parliamentary answer, 6 November 2003

I set out... my own genuinely held, independent view that military action was lawful under the existing [UN] Security Council resolutions. [It] did not purport to be a summary of my confidential legal advice to government.

Lord Goldsmith, parliamentary answer, 25 February 2005