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‘Far from satisfactory’: Chilcot highly critical of Lord Goldsmith over Iraq War

Lord Peter Goldsmith, the UK attorney general at the time of the Iraq war, has been heavily criticised in the Chilcot report. The report, which cost £10m and is more than 2.6 million words long, was released today following a seven-year inquiry into the decision making that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While the Chilcot report does not make a judgement on the legality of the war, report author Sir John Chilcot said ‘the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory’.

In Section 5 of the report, which mentions Goldsmith (pictured) more than 600 times, the inquiry concluded that he should have been asked to provide written advice which fully reflected the position on 17 March 2003 (when Lord Goldsmith reached his ‘better view’ that invasion was legal) , and explained the legal basis on which the UK could take military action and set out the risks of legal challenge.

The Chilcot report was critical of Goldsmith’s advice, and its timing, stating that it was not until 13 March 2003 that Lord Goldsmith advised that there was, on balance, a secure legal basis for military action, after having previously advised that that the safest legal course for future military action would be to secure a further UN Security Council resolution.

Sir John said this morning that then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave Goldsmith an assurance that Iraq was in breach of its obligations, which led to legal opinion that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 could go ahead, but it is not clear on what basis he decided that. 

The report writes there was little appetite [from cabinet] to question Goldsmith about his advice, and no substantive discussion of the legal issues was recorded.

Sir John said that the invasion of Iraq was not the ‘last resort’ presented to MPs and the British public and that military action was based on as based on ‘flawed intelligence and assessments’ that ‘were not challenged’.

Goldsmith said: ‘The Chilcot report has been published after one of the most thorough and searching inquiries into governmental decision-making ever to have taken place, as is wholly appropriate given the consequences of going to war. As others have said, I pay tribute to all those who gave their lives and have been affected in any way by the conflict in Iraq.’

‘As I explained in my detailed evidence to the inquiry, it was my honestly-held, professional opinion that there was sufficient authority in UN Security Resolution 1441, together with Resolutions 678 and 687, to go to war.

‘This was my conclusion after an in-depth study of all the available information.

‘I welcome the fact that there is nothing in today’s exhaustive report that challenges either my conclusion or the fact that this was my honestly held view.

‘Sir John today expresses concern about the process by which my advice was obtained. I agree that process should be improved for the future. As I said in my evidence, I think that there ought to be a cabinet sub-committee to consider issues relating to the legality of government policy, and that legal advisers should be closely involved in the policy-making process.

‘In purely technical terms, legal opinions can differ. I provided my advice to the best of my abilities and aware of the seriousness of any decision to go to war. In my opinion, that decision was in accordance with international law and it was permissible for those with the responsibility for taking the decision to proceed. So, I believed then – and I still believe – that military action was lawful.’

Goldsmith retired as attorney-general in 2007 and is now London co-managing partner at US firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

The report also concluded that:

-The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were presented with a certainty that was not justified.

– Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.

-The government failed to achieve its stated objectives.

Read more on Lord Goldsmith’s career in: ‘Life During Law – Lord Peter Goldsmith’

The full report can be read here, and section 5 can be viewed here.