John Scarlett: 'C'

'C' is for the chief of MI6. But with the appointment of Alastair Campbell's 'mate' to the top job in the Secret Intelligence Service, 'C', say his critics, is also for crony. As if the challenge of restoring the reputation of Britain's spies wasn't hard enough...
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The Independent Online

British intelligence has, in the past, been guilty of incompetence. It has been accused of interfering in the political process. But never have these charges been aired so vehemently and publicly, and in such a personalised fashion, as in the case of John Scarlett's appointment by Tony Blair as the head of MI6. The posting, hitherto a bipartisan issue, has led to unprecedented objections from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and been greeted with almost universally unfavourable media coverage. Scarlett and the Prime Minister have been subjected to scathing criticism. There is barely concealed dismay in the intelligence community.

British intelligence has, in the past, been guilty of incompetence. It has been accused of interfering in the political process. But never have these charges been aired so vehemently and publicly, and in such a personalised fashion, as in the case of John Scarlett's appointment by Tony Blair as the head of MI6. The posting, hitherto a bipartisan issue, has led to unprecedented objections from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and been greeted with almost universally unfavourable media coverage. Scarlett and the Prime Minister have been subjected to scathing criticism. There is barely concealed dismay in the intelligence community.

For MI6 - the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) - the announcement from Downing Street was not a complete surprise. After all, what is a spy worth if he or she cannot even find out in advance who is going to be their new boss? The broad view, though, is that however talented Scarlett may be, this was a rather grubby pay-off for protecting Blair over the Iraq weapons dossier. The widespread hope among intelligence officials was that, as is customary, it would be the deputy chief, Nigel Inkster, who got the job of "C". Inkster was also the preferred choice of the outgoing chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, who is said to have been well aware of Scarlett's ambitions.

Some in the SIS believe that Scarlett's (he was recommended for a knighthood, but cannot yet use his title) experience will prevent him from adopting too close a relationship with Downing Street in the future. Others, however, wonder whether the supremely confident new boss possesses the degree of humility necessary for this. Senior members will be watching his early moves, and, if they become uneasy, Sir Richard can expect a steady stream of visitors from headquarters at Vauxhall to his new home at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he has taken over as the Master.

Details of the extent of Scarlett's intimacy with the Prime Minister's staff emerged during Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of the government scientist David Kelly. Scarlett and Downing Street, it was claimed, used intelligence - often arid, equivocal stuff that tends to be seen only by those who absolutely need to see it - for political purposes. Scarlett, as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), is said to have been seduced by his proximity to Blair and his coterie and allowed Downing Street to toughen up the notorious weapons dossier of September 2002 into an alarmist document that provided a pretext for war. At one stage he even allowed his "mate" Alastair Campbell, then Blair's director of communications, to chair a meeting on the dossier.

British intelligence on Iraq in the run up to the war was severely flawed. Even George Tenet, the CIA director who thought a "slam dunk" intelligence case could be made against the Iraqi dictator, said the 45-minutes claim was "crap", and cautioned the US administration against having anything to do with it.

The mistakes were not Scarlett's fault. The faulty intelligence came from MI6. But, as chairman of the JIC, it was his job to ensure that an objective and detached view was taken of this before being passed to the politicians. Instead, not only was this raw intelligence taken at face value, but there were repeated demands made by Scarlett's team compiling the dossier for more such material. This followed complaints from the Prime Minister's advisers that the document did not do enough to present Saddam Hussein as an imminent danger. If anyone was in a position to urge caution, which, with hindsight, would have been invaluable, it was Scarlett.

Appearing before Lord Hutton, Scarlett steadfastly stuck to the Downing Street version of the dossier compilation , repeatedly insisting that he had "ownership" - a word echoed by Campbell and Blair. It was not his fault, he said dismissively, that the 45-minutes threat was widely understood to mean that British bases in Cyprus were vulnerable, and not, as was really the case, that it referred to battlefield weapons of much shorter range. Sir Richard, giving his evidence, on the other hand, pointedly acknowledged that criticism that the threat was exaggerated was "valid". Lord Hutton, as we know, exonerated the Government and its allies in his report. Scarlett, he said, may have been "subconsciously" influenced by Downing Street, but nothing untoward had come of this.

Others were far less charitable. The then Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who claims to have been personally misled by Scarlett over the dossier, reportedly called him a "lying little shit". Former senior members of British intelligence were also unhappy. Among them was Sir Rodric Braithwaite, one of his predecessors, who said Scarlett had "stepped outside his traditional role ... [and] entered the Prime Minister's magic circle". His conduct "was engulfed in the atmosphere of excitement which surrounds decision making in a crisis".

But Scarlett, who is no less vain than most, is keen not to let his membership of "the magic circle" lapse. When Blair was hospitalised with heart trouble, the JIC chairman was among the first half-dozen visitors, beaten by a place, waiting photographers noted, by Nigella Lawson. Scarlett is also said to have held a ticket to Campbell's roadshow, although it is not known whether he turned up for the performance. Medieval church architecture, rather than showbiz, is his preferred hobby.

That such matters have become known about a man supposedly in one of the most sensitive and secret posts in the realm is thanks to his willingness to go before the Hutton inquiry, and becoming one of its most high-profile witnesses. Until then, details about him had been sparse. John McLeod Scarlett, the son of a doctor, grew up in south London and was educated at a public school, Epsom College, where he was bad at sports but good at studies. He won a scholarship to Magdalen, Oxford, where he got a first in modern history. Scarlett married at 22 in 1970, joined MI6 the following year and stayed there for the next 30. There was little doubt he was going to go far. He was regarded as bright, proficient, and adept at office politics. One former colleague recalls: "He was a good organiser, self-assured and very, very ambitious. If he wanted a posting, he would really go for it." Scarlett's first posting was Nairobi. He returned to London and was part of the team that ran the Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky. One of his fellow handlers was Eliza Manningham-Buller of MI5, now its director general.

After a spell in Paris, where he built up a good relationship with the French secret service, in 1991 Scarlett returned to a previous beat, Moscow, this time as bureau chief. The following year he was involved in organising the defection of the KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin. In 1994, Scarlett was asked to leave Moscow by the Russians in a tit-for-tat spying row. On returning to London with his wife, Gwenda, he was photographed at Heathrow airport. That picture, of a somewhat rakish Graham Greene character in a hat, was the only one in public existence until he appeared before Lord Hutton. His short, muscular, bald, bespectacled figure - rather more expensively dressed than any fictional spymaster - became a familiar sight on TV screens.

Giving evidence, Scarlett appeared to many to be somewhat tetchy and condescending, brushing aside revelations of reservations and objections from other members of the intelligence community, some of the foremost experts on chemical and biological weapons in this country, because, he claimed, they had not seen all the intelligence he had seen.

Ironically, when Scarlett was appointed JIC chairman, a post traditionally not held by a spy, there was general self-congratulation in the espionage community that one of their own was getting access to the centre of power. Now, they have been lining up to tell Lord Butler, carrying out his review of pre-war intelligence on Iraq, that information supplied by them should never be so politicised again.

Scarlett's appointment, and the response to it, also means that British intelligence will be facing far greater sceptical scrutiny in the future. It will be a further irony if future attempts by this Government to use intelligence to justify a war is less successful because of doubts about the credibility of the head of MI6.

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