Lord Goldsmith told Blair Invading Iraq Was Illegal

Lord Goldsmith told Blair Invading Iraq Was Illegal

Americans who defend the legality of the invasion of Iraq almost invariably point to the fact that Britain’s Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, also approved the invasion.  That argument has always been questionable; rumours have long circulated that Lord Goldsmith did not believe that the invasion was legal, but was pressured by Downing Street into approving it anyway.

According to an explosive new report the by Daily Mail, hardly a lefty newspaper, that is exactly what happened.  And there’s even written proof that Lord Goldsmith told Blair that invading Iraq would be illegal:

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.


Lord Goldsmith gave qualified legal backing to the conflict days before the war broke out in March 2003 in a brief, carefully drafted statement. As The Mail on Sunday disclosed three years ago, even that was a distortion as Lord Goldsmith had told Mr Blair a week earlier he could be breaking international law.

But today’s revelations show that Lord Goldsmith told Mr Blair at the outset, and in writing, that military action against Iraq was totally illegal.

The disclosures deal a massive blow to Mr Blair’s hopes of proving he acted in good faith when he and George Bush declared war on Iraq. And they are likely to fuel further calls for Mr Blair to be charged with war crimes.

Lord Goldsmith’s ‘smoking gun’ letter came six days after a Cabinet meeting on July 23, 2002, at which Ministers were secretly told that the US and UK were set on ‘regime change’ in Iraq.

The peer, who attended the meeting, was horrified. On July 29, he wrote to Mr Blair on a single side of A4 headed notepaper from his office.

Friends say it was no easy thing for him to do. He was a close friend of Mr Blair, who gave him his peerage and Cabinet post. The typed letter was addressed by hand, ‘Dear Tony’, and signed by hand, ‘Yours, Peter’.

In it, Lord Goldsmith set out in uncompromising terms why he believed war was illegal. He pointed out that:

  • War could not be justified purely on the grounds of ‘regime change’.
  • Although United Nations rules permitted ‘military intervention on the basis of self-defence’, they did not apply in this case because Britain was not under threat from Iraq.
  • While the UN allowed ‘humanitarian intervention’ in certain instances, that too was not relevant to Iraq.
  • It would be very hard to rely on earlier UN resolutions in the Nineties approving the use of force against Saddam.

Lord Goldsmith ended his letter by saying ‘the situation might change’ – although in legal terms, it never did.

The letter caused pandemonium in Downing Street. Mr Blair was furious. No10 told Lord Goldsmith he should never have put his views on paper, and he was not to do so again unless told to by Mr Blair.

The reason was simple: if it became public, Lord Goldsmith’s letter could make it impossible for Mr Blair to fulfil his secret pledge to back Mr Bush in any circumstances. More importantly, it could never be expunged from the record as copies were stored in No10 and in the Attorney General’s office.

I don’t know who comes off worse: Blair, whose slavish devotion to Bush led him to support an invasion he knew full well was illegal, or Lord Goldsmith, who allowed himself — for reasons unknown — to be bullied into providing Blair and Bush with legal cover for the invasion.  Either way, it’s difficult to see either of them ever having a signficant role in government ever again.  And that’s a very good thing.

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Hardly explosive. Lord Goldsmith’s about-face has been known for years (and widely criticized).

Craig Martin

This is precisely why the executive should not be permitted to decide to go to war without any established procedure to govern the process, and to ensure that there is accountability with respect to the manner in which the decision is made. The fact that the PM went ballistic at the fact that the advice was reduced to writing, and afraid that sharing the information might alter the decision of the cabinet, reveals the illegitimacy of the process. It is reminicent of the Suez Crisis, when Prime Minister Eden almost went berserk when he found out that the under-secretary at the Foreign Office had committed to writing an agreement among Britain, France and Israel regarding the planned (illegal) invasion of Egypt (he actually dispatched the under-secretary to France to retrieve and destroy the copies of the agreement, but the French refused to give it back and the Israelis had already left). Eden too had been told by his AG that the invasion would be illegal, and Eden similarly kept part of his cabinet in the dark.

M. Gross
M. Gross

I’m just of the opinion Lord Goldsmith was seriously in error on point #4.  More importantly, was Goldsmith seriously going to disclose his legal advice to the Prime Minister?

It sounds almost like a (political) blackmail attempt… is it the place of the Attorney General to go to the press if the Prime Minister disregards his legal advice?


I guess I fail to see what legal implications this really has.  Sure, it might sell a couple extra papers for the Daily Mail, but as you point out at the end Lord Goldsmith eventually did give them the justification they wanted.  The letter seems to be just an informal reminder of the basic rules of war: self defense, humanitarian intervention etc.  The important takeaway seems to be that even conscientious lawyers cannot, ultimately, swim against the current of politics and executive power.  Is the role of attorney general to provide objective assessment or to rubber stamp and provide legal cover? 

I am intrigued by the rest of the article’s reporting about the freeze out.  I have always been puzzled by Blair’s devotion to Bush and the Iraq invasion. 

Also, perhaps in regards to point #4 Lord Goldsmith was anticipating the fact that compliance could or would be shown.  What we need is a Frost/Nixon style interview with Blair.  I’m not hopeful, but it would be useful to get inside the decision making process surrounding the U.K.’s involvement.