Foreign Office official's resignation letter reveals that Attorney General did change his mind on legality of Iraq war
Documentary evidence has emerged showing that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, changed his mind about the legality of the Iraq war just before the conflict began. The damning revelation is contained in the resignation letter of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a legal adviser at the Foreign Office, in which she said the war would be a "crime of aggression". She quit the day after Lord Goldsmith's ruling was made public, three days before the war began in March 2003.
The critical paragraph of her letter, published yesterday under the Freedom of Information Act, was blanked out by the Government on the grounds that it was in the public interest to protect the privacy of the advice given by the Attorney General. But last night the contents of the paragraph were leaked, and Tony Blair was facing fresh allegations of a cover-up. There has long been speculation that Lord Goldsmith was leant on to switch his view, and to sanction the war - and confirmation of that would be devastating for the Prime Minister. The Wilmhurst letter stops short of explaining what caused Lord Goldsmith to change his mind.
The revelations come two weeks after it emerged that there had never been a detailed dossier from the Attorney General setting out the case for military action before troops were committed, and that Britain went to war on the basis of nine paragraphs on a single sheet of A4 paper.
Last night's revelations - broadcast on Channel 4 News - showed that Ms Wilmshurst said the Attorney General had initially agreed with the Foreign Office legal team that a war on Iraq would be illegal without a second UN resolution.
In the blanked-out paragraph from her letter of resignation on 18 March 2003, she wrote: "My views accord with the advice that has been given consistently in this office before and after the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1441 and with what the Attorney General gave us to understand was his view prior to his letter of 7 March. (The view expressed in that letter has of course changed again into what is now the official line)."
The revelations were seized upon by critics of the Iraq conflict. Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The Government blacked out that section not in the public interest but in the government interest. The Government is severely embarrassed by the fact that there is continuing controversy about the legal advice given by the Attorney General and the way in which he arrived at his final opinion."
Clare Short, who resigned from the Cabinet after the invasion, said last night: "I think the Government had to try and cover it up because it's so devastating. The bit that was blocked out shows that the Attorney General changed his mind twice in a matter of days before he gave his advice to the Cabinet when he just said, unequivocally, 'My view is the legal authority for war' and kept from the Cabinet any suggestion that he had had doubts about it." She added: "I didn't think there was anything left that would shock me but to have that in black and white and to know that is what he did is really shocking. He said he wasn't leant on, but he certainly turned head over heels a couple of times."
As efforts to get a second UN resolution were stalling in the approach to the 2003 conflict, Lord Goldsmith produced a lengthy legal opinion arguing that a case could be made for war without a second UN resolution, but it could be open to legal challenge.
On 13 March, he told ministers that war without a UN second resolution was legal. But there have been claims that six days earlier, on 7 March, he presented Tony Blair with a legal opinion in which he warned that military action could be challenged in the courts.
The emergence of Ms Wilms-hurst's allegation is likely to prove to be embarrassing for ministers in the run-up to an expected general election in May.