Normally, John Scarlett would be a natural choice for the next head of MI6. As chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the experienced spymaster is a trusted member of Tony Blair's inner circle.
Such access to the Prime Minister and his court would be welcomed by the Secret Intelligence Service. And Mr Scarlett, a former member of the service who was station chief in Moscow, has all the right credentials to succeed Sir Richard Dearlove as the next "C". Indeed, there was self-congratulation in the service when he was made chairman of the JIC, a post usually occupied by a civil servant.
But Mr Scarlett finds himself in unusual times, and the shadow of the controversial Iraq dossiers hangs over the man who "signed off" the September dossier as JIC chairman. There is disquiet within MI6, its sister organisation, MI5 (the Security Service) and defence intelligence that he gave in to Downing Street's demands for "intelligence" on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction too easily.
In particular, he is said to have given No 10 officials, including Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, sight of "raw", inadequately checked, intelligence. He also allowed Mr Campbell, who has no background in intelligence, to chair a meeting on the formulation of the dossier, which astonished operatives in the intelligence and security services. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee said: "It was wrong for Alastair Campbell ... to have chaired a meeting on an intelligence matter, and we recommend that this practice ceases."
It seems that Nigel Inkster, the new deputy chief of MI6, is the successor favoured by the service and Sir Richard. Mr Inkster was a contemporary of the Prime Minister at Oxford University, and he has been part of the team monitoring chemical and biological weapons proliferation, including Iraqi attempts to procure such material.
But the career intelligence officer, who is now director of operations, does not appear to have further links with Downing Street. One senior source said: "He has that distinct advantage over Scarlett in that Alastair Campbell did not say he was a 'mate' of his. He does not have that baggage."
Sir Richard is not leaving early. More than a year ago, he said he wanted to be master of an Oxford college. None of his predecessors in the past 20 years has served for more than five years, apart from Sir Colin McColl, who served for five years and six months.
MI6 provided the bulk of "evidence" for last September's Iraq dossier, and the scant intelligence in the subsequent "dodgy dossier" in February. But Sir Richard is said to have been worried that old information, most of it in the public domain, was passed off in the September dossier as fresh and top-secret.
In what has been seen as damage limitation, Sir Richard briefed senior media figures as the furore grew over the failure to find WMD in Iraq. Among those he spoke to were Kevin Marsh, the editor of Radio 4's Today programme and the presenter John Humphrys. Sir Richard told them MI6 considered Syria and Iran more of a threat then Iraq. That was before the BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan - based on information supplied, he says, by the late scientist David Kelly - reported that the Government had "sexed up" the September dossier.
Sir Richard has been named by the BBC in its submission to the Hutton inquiry. There is little doubt Mr Scarlett will be called to give evidence. Both have already faced "hard questioning" by the Intelligence and Security Committee. But the ISC sessions were private, and Lord Hutton plans to hold much of his hearing in public.
When Mr Scarlett appears, he is expected to be asked about Dr Kelly's precise role. If he maintains the Downing Street line that Dr Kelly was just a "middle-ranking" technical expert who gave a historic perspective on Iraq's WMD programmes, he can expect hostile and sceptical questioning from counsel for the Kelly family and the BBC. Intelligence sources say Mr Inkster will not have to face such potentially damaging exposure.
Iraq should have been a "good war" for MI6. Its agents played a vital role in the British success in the south through links built with Shia leaders and, it is believed, also worked with the Americans and Saddam's generals to ensure Baghdad fell relatively easily.
But much of that has been overlooked because of the dossier debacle. Officers in the service believe the appointment of Mr Scarlett would perpetuate that embarrassment. A Whitehall source said: "John Scarlett had a good career in the service, and could hope to go the top. But the problem is his association with the way the September dossier was presented, and his obvious connections with Downing Street. The feeling is that he found it difficult to deal with all the machinations that went on there. There are various things that will come out in the wash before Dearlove leaves. Who knows what will happen?"
THE CONTENDERS FOR THE TOP JOB IN BRITISH INTELLIGENCE
The former MI6 chief of the Moscow bureau has had a successful career so far, and played an important role in the operation that saved the life of Oleg Gordievsky, MI6's agent inside the KGB. His appointment as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee was seen as another triumph for the Secret Intelligence Service. But his handling of the September Iraq weapons dossier, and supposed acquiesence to Downing Street demands has been highly damaging to his reputation.
The deputy to Sir Richard Dearlove, the outgoing head of MI6, is seen as the successor the service favours. Fifty years old, a family man with children, he is known as a dapper dresser. He is a contemporary of Tony Blair at Oxford University, but is not known to have any strong links with Downing Street. He has been in a team that is monitoring Iraq's alleged chemical and biological warfare developments, so Mr Scarlett would have been dealing with information supplied by Mr Inkster.
Eliza Manningham-Buller is the recently appointed head of MI5, the Security Service, and the second woman to hold the post after Stella Rimington. MI5 is recognised as having had a highly successful role in the "war on terror". Its operatives gained vital intelligence by interviewing Afghan prisoners of war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the American Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It has so far managed to avert any big al-Qa'ida attack in Britain. Ms Manningham-Buller, aged 54, the daughter of a former Tory attorney general, was one of the handlers of Colonel Gordievsky in Britain and thus has a connection with Mr Scarlett. Ms Manningham-Buller is relatively untainted by the Iraq intelligence dossiers controversy because MI6, rather than MI5, had the lead role in producing it. But it is not usual for MI5 chiefs to take over MI6, and vice versa.Reuse content