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Context of 'March 17, 2003: British Attorney General Says Invasion of Iraq Is Legal'

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Top British officials attend a meeting to discuss Britain’s potential role in the Bush administration’s confrontation with Iraq. According to the minutes of the meeting, transcribed by Matthew Rycroft, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British intelligence service, MI6, says that during his last visit (see July 20, 2002) to Washington he noticed a “perceptible shift in attitude. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.” Furthermore, he states, Bush’s National Security Council indicated it “had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record.” He also noted that there “was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.” [United Kingdom, 7/23/2002; Salon, 5/6/2005; Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] Foreign Minister Jack Straw appears to agree with Dearlove’s assessment, saying that it seems clear that President Bush has already decided on using military force to depose Saddam Hussein. But Straw notes that the Bush administration’s case against Saddam was “thin.” The Iraqi leader “was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran,” the minutes say, summarizing his remarks. [Guardian, 5/2/2005; Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] There is no indication in the minutes that anyone present at the meeting disputed Dearlove’s or Straw’s observations. [United Kingdom, 7/23/2002] Furthermore, the account provided by the intelligence official and Straw are corroborated by a former senior US official who is later interviewed by Knight Ridder. It is “an absolutely accurate description of what transpired,” the official will say. [Knight Ridder, 5/2/2005] Straw proposes that the next step would be to “work up an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors,” which “would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.” [Guardian, 5/2/2005; Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] Britain’s attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, warns that “the desire for regime change [is] not a legal base for military action,” the minutes say. But Blair says that “it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] Finally, the officials agree that the British government “should continue to work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action” but “not ignore the legal issues.” [Guardian, 5/2/2005] The minutes do not provide any indication that officials discussed how war might be avoided. [Salon, 6/10/2005] The minutes of this meetings will be revealed by the British Sunday Times three years later (see May 1, 2005). Commonly referred to as the “Downing Street Memo,” the minutes will re-spark the controversy over politicized intelligence.

Entity Tags: Richard Wilson, Michael Boyce, Peter Henry Goldsmith, Richard Dearlove, Jonathan Powell, Geoff Hoon, Jack Straw, Alastair Campbell, Francis Richards, Sally Morgan, John Scarlett, Tony Blair

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

British Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith and Solicitor-General Harriet Harman warn British Prime Minister Tony Blair that a preemptive war against Iraq, without UN backing, would violate international law and could potentially result in Britain being hauled before the International Criminal Court. [Financial Times, 10/7/2002]

Entity Tags: Peter Henry Goldsmith, Harriet Harman, Tony Blair

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith issues a statement that the use of force against Iraq would be legal, citing three UN resolutions. But a month earlier, Goldsmith warned British Prime Minister Tony Blair that an invasion could be illegal without a second UN resolution, and that resolution never passed. [Associated Press, 2/28/2004; BBC, 2/29/2004; Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 2/29/2004; Independent, 2/29/2004] It is later revealed that his change in opinion was a result of pressure from top British officials after senior British military officers had warned Downing Street that they would not participate in the war unless they were certain that neither they nor their men could eventually be tried for war crimes. [Observer, 2/29/2004]

Entity Tags: Peter Henry Goldsmith

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Britain’s information commissioner, Richard Thomas, rules that the minutes of Cabinet meetings at which ministers discussed the legality of invading Iraq should be published. In his finding, Thomas says that documents and transcripts concerning the legal discussions should be made public in part because “there is a widespread view that the justification for the decision on military action in Iraq is either not fully understood or that the public were not given the full or genuine reasons for that decision.” In this case, Thomas says, the public interest in disclosure outweighs the principles that normally allow the government not to have to publish minutes of cabinet decisions. The government is expected to appeal Thomas’s decision. In and of itself, Thomas’s decision does not have enough legal weight to force publication. Many lawyers, legal experts, and antiwar figures believe that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was illegal under international law. On March 17, 2003, then-Attorney General Lord Goldsmith ruled that the invasion was legal (see March 17, 2003), but Goldsmith had issued dramatically different opinions before the eve of the war (see Before October 7, 2002). One of Goldsmith’s legal opinions against the war, published on March 7, 2003, was kept from the Cabinet ministers, and many argue that had the Cabinet known of Goldsmith’s reservations, some of the ministers may not have supported then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq. Former international development secretary Clare Short, who quit the government following the war, says the Cabinet minutes would only give a “sanitized” account of the meetings, but their release would set an important precedent: “[H]aving made this decision, the discussion won’t stop there. There will be pressure for more,” she says. The Cabinet Office has not yet decided whether to obey Thomas’s ruling. [Guardian, 2/26/2008] That office previously rejected a Freedom of Information request for the transcripts. [BBC, 2/26/2008]

Entity Tags: Blair administration, Cabinet Office (Britain), Claire Short, Peter Henry Goldsmith, Tony Blair, Richard Thomas

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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