“Burn it”: Blair’s Defence Secretary Told to Destroy Memo Suggesting that the Invasion of Iraq was Illegal

Geoff Hoon, Tony Blair’s defence secretary between 1999 and 2005, has revealed that he was instructed to burn a vital memo, sent by Lord Goldsmith the incumbent attorney general, that questioned the legality of the British invasion of Iraq.

In his new memoir, See How They Run, Hoon reveals that he was under significant pressure from the Chief of Defence Staff, Mike Boyce, due to a lack of UN authorisation on the use of force, to find clear legal direction regarding the validity of Britain’s involvement in invading Iraq in 2003.

In his search for legal direction, the defence secretary received a memo from Lord Goldsmith, the UK’s attorney general. The memo was hugely detailed and comprehensive in its legal opinion on the matter but was for the eyes of Hoon alone. Unable to discuss the contents with anyone at the time, Hoon stated that the memo was “not an easy read” and that it didn’t contain the go-ahead Boyce sought. It instead stipulated that the invasion could only be lawful if the Prime Minister believed the action was truly within the national interest of Great Britain and its people. 

Unaware of who else had received this document and knew of its contents, Hoon then inquired about how he should dispose of it. His private secretary was told to “burn it”. Unable to do so due to understanding the importance of the document, it was locked in a Ministry of Defence safe accessible only by Hoon. It is unclear whether it was Goldsmith or Jonathan Powell, former Downing Street Chief of Staff, who told Hoon to burn the document but regardless it is evident that the memo was damning to Blair’s defence of the invasion.

Moreover, petitions are now circulating calling for Blair’s knighthood, awarded to him in the Queen’s 2022 New Year’s Honours, to be rescinded due to his actions regarding the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a form of ammunition that protestors will utilise against the former Prime Minister that will only intensify as scrutiny continues to grow as the 20th Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches.

From the perspective of our project, we challenge the idea that there was any one “smoking memo” or singular deciving act that facilitated the invasion. Instead, we believe that the archives of the Chilcot Inquiry reveal that, instead, it was the culmination of a series of political cultures, ideologies – such as western interventionism – and neocolonial attitudes that fostered the conditions that led to the Iraq War.