The attorney general caves in?

It is difficult to believe that the attorney general, whose job it is to advise the government and serve the public interest, has once again let himself, and the office, down by allowing himself to be influenced in his decision making by the government of the day. But according to a report in The Guardian today, such is the case.

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, changed his mind about whether there was enough evidence to bring corruption charges against the arms company BAE after pressure from Downing Street, legal sources have told the Guardian.

This is how The Guardian reports the change-of-mind:

In emergency meetings before Christmas, Lord Goldsmith initially agreed with lawyers and prosecutors that the Serious Fraud Office  could bring charges against the former head of BAE Sir Dick Evans.

Having reviewed the SFO’s files, Lord Goldsmith agreed that BAE could, in effect, be offered a plea bargain in which investigators would drop further potentially politically embarrassing inquiries if the company agreed to plead guilty to these relatively minor charges.

But within 48 hours the agreement was countermanded after decisions taken in Downing Street, Whitehall sources said.

The director of the SFO, Robert Wardle, was forbidden to make the approach to BAE. Instead the attorney general told parliament the entire Saudi investigation was to be halted, and that there was insufficient evidence for it to succeed. Lord Goldsmith also said in the Lords that MI5 and MI6 believed national security was in danger. The heads of the agencies have refused to endorse his claim.

Needless to say, among those who have any connection with the whole affair there denials aplenty swirling about, and those who not issuing denials are for the most part in “no comment” mode. BAE, naturally enough, deny wrongdoing for which they should be investigated. The SFO says that its director’s decision, and his alone, not to pursue the case because there were some risks to national security if the case were to be investigated fully.

However, it’s hard not to plank oneself on the side of the human rights lawyer Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC when he writes that Lord Goldsmith should be stripped of his power.

The Lib Dem peer criticises his conduct in three key “political” cases: the BAE inquiry; his Iraq advice, where it also emerged that he had changed his mind under political pressure; and the cash-for-honours police inquiry. The government’s reputation has been harmed by “weaving and ducking, buck-passing and hand-wringing”, Lord Lester says, and the scandal of Lord Goldsmith’s halting of the BAE investigation has “gravely eroded public confidence in the government’s integrity

I’m not quite certain that this has damaged the government as much as it has damaged the attorney general’s office. The government’s integrity has been tarnished long ago – the lead-up to, and revelations after, the war in Iraq did that – but the reputation of the attorney general’s office had not been damaged in the public eye, partly because his justification for going to war in Iraq seemed to have been wrung from him by a government that was determined to justify its actions no matter what, and partly because the general public understood very of what was going on

It is my belief that the public understands what’s at stake here a lot better than it understands the niceties of the justification for going to war.

What it sees is a bunch of high-powered, well-connected people getting away with wrongdoing just because the attorney generals office has to do the bidding of the politicians. The office does not keep respect that way.

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