Blair Releases Memo Questioning Legality of Iraq War

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 29, 2005

LONDON, April 28 -- The Iraq war, until now a slumbering issue in Britain's election campaign, came to life Thursday after Prime Minister Tony Blair gave in to pressure and released a confidential memo from his chief legal adviser that raised questions about the legality of the invasion.

Coming a week before the May 5 contest, the disclosure of the two-year-old opinion was seized upon by the two main opposition political parties, which leveled fresh accusations that Blair had misled Parliament and the public in making the case for war.

They argued that Blair had withheld the 13-page opinion and had pressured its author, Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, to switch course and produce the one-page endorsement of the war that Goldsmith presented to Parliament the day before it voted for military action.

Blair's main opponent, the Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, accused the prime minister of lying and said the memo proved he could no longer be trusted. But Blair and Goldsmith each denied that the attorney general had been pressured to change his view, and Blair contemptuously accused Howard, who said he still supported the war, of character assassination and political opportunism.

Blair's ruling Labor Party has held a steady lead in the polls during an increasingly bitter campaign. But the polls also indicate a majority of British citizens oppose the war and believe that in order to justify launching it, their government hyped intelligence claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

In the original opinion, which Blair released Thursday after key portions were leaked to Channel Four News here, Goldsmith told Blair that the language of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, passed in November 2002 to bring new pressure on Iraq, was ambiguous on the question of war. "I remain of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorize the use of force," he wrote.

Without such a new resolution, Goldsmith added, Blair would need "strong factual grounds" and "hard evidence" that Iraq had failed to comply with previous resolutions requiring it to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction and allow stringent monitoring by U.N. weapons inspectors.

Unlike in the United States, the legality of the war has remained an enduring issue here because of long-standing respect for international law and because Britain has signed on to the new International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to try accused war criminals.

Goldsmith's legal opinion was drawn up in part to answer the demands of Adm. Michael Boyce, then chief of the defense staff. He wanted assurances that soldiers could not be prosecuted either by the international court or in the British justice system for taking part in an illegal war.

Goldsmith's paper, dated March 7, 2003, and marked "Secret," carefully laid out both sides of the case and did not rule out the possibility of war without a new U.N. resolution. But it pointed out the possible legal consequences and urged caution.

The paper was disclosed neither to the cabinet nor to Parliament. Instead, 10 days later, Goldsmith released a one-page statement fully endorsing the decision to go to war without a new U.N. resolution and containing none of his earlier caveats. The attack began three days later.

One of those involved in weighing the legality of the war, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a foreign affairs legal adviser, then resigned. In her resignation letter, disclosed this year, she wrote that Goldsmith had changed his view "into what is now the official line."

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