In Britain, a public inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcot and four other members of the Privy Council is busily burrowing into the circumstances surrounding the commencement of the war in Iraq. While the inquiry was initially criticized for lacking sufficient expertise to examine the complex legal issues raised, it now seems positioned to break new ground in just this area. Over the weekend, Britain was rocked by disclosures that Prime Minister Blair was advised by his attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, that the proposed invasion of Iraq would be illegal. Rumors to this effect have circulated for some time, but Goldsmith and Blair squelched them, insisting that Goldsmith had given the invasion a green light. Goldsmith was pressed on the question quite aggressively, and stuck tenaciously to the view that the operation was legal.
Now it appears that he came to that view through a very rocky process. The Mail on Sunday reports that Goldsmith put his opinion that the war would be unlawful in a letter:
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.
So how did Goldsmith come to issue an opinion that the war was lawful and to testify in support of its legality? Blair has vehemently denied that Goldsmith was “bullied,” but he has not denied the core of the report about the earlier Goldsmith opinion.
If the Mail’s account is borne out, then the Chilcot inquiry will likely secure and publish the earlier Goldsmith letter. The disclosures challenge the credibility of Tony Blair, and they also make Lord Goldsmith, who now serves as the global chair of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York-based law firm, look like a weak figure who bent his legal views to fit the needs of a political client. And for Americans following the Chilcot inquiry, the disclosures raise more fundamental questions: why has our nation failed to attempt similar fact-finding into the slippery origins of the Iraq conflict? Britain is offering us a lesson in how a democracy proceeds, settling the historical narrative and flushing out unpleasant facts that politicians would rather keep secret as it prepares to move forward.