Spies like them

Today, John Scarlett, his cover blown by the Hutton inquiry, takes over at MI6, still struggling to adapt after the Cold War and disrupted by budget cuts. So who are today's spooks? They are far removed from the pages of Le Carré or Fleming, say Raymond Whitaker and Paul Lashmar
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Indy Politics

John Scarlett has got the job he always wanted. Influential voices have been raised against him, most recently that of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary and defence secretary, but this weekend he becomes head of the organisation in which he has spent most of his career: the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS, more commonly known as MI6.

John Scarlett has got the job he always wanted. Influential voices have been raised against him, most recently that of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary and defence secretary, but this weekend he becomes head of the organisation in which he has spent most of his career: the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS, more commonly known as MI6.

For all the flamboyance of its headquarters at Vauxhall Cross on the south bank of the Thames in London, MI6 loves an air of mystery. Traditionally its head was known only as "C", and neither his name nor his photograph was ever published. The veil has lifted a little; we know that the outgoing chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, is becoming Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, but we do not know what he looks like. When he gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry last year, it was over a voice link.

The irony is that the same inquiry has demolished his successor's anonymity for ever. Though Mr Scarlett's previous role as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and author of the notorious September 2002 dossier on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction might not necessarily have made him a public figure, the aftermath certainly did. It was not helpful that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's combative spinmeister, called him a "mate", but when Mr Campbell took on the BBC over its questioning of the dossier, it provoked a firestorm that led to the suicide of the weapons expert Dr David Kelly and an inquiry at which Mr Scarlett had to give evidence in public.

Friend or foe, we all know exactly what he looks like. And when no WMD have been found in Iraq, and the Butler inquiry into intelligence failures has shed further uncomfortable light on the blurred boundaries between espionage and government spin, it is inevitable that the brisk, balding new chief of MI6 embodies many of the doubts about the war.

This has not made him welcome to some of the denizens of "Legoland", as MI6 headquarters is nicknamed. Their faction wanted Sir Richard's deputy, Nigel Inkster, to take over, seeing Mr Scarlett as fatally damaged by his involvement with Downing Street.

For them the biggest problem is political interference in their work. But others argue that morale has also been damaged by the Butler report's criticisms of organisational lapses by the agency in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and that Mr Inkster was equally implicated in those.

Professor Richard Aldrich of Nottingham University, regarded as the leading academic authority on MI6, believes Mr Scarlett may be better suited to his new job than his previous one. In Cold War days he was admired for his handling of the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky, whom he helped to spirit out of Russia ahead of imminent arrest. "He is going back to an agency very much geared to agent recruitment and running," said Professor Aldrich. "It is above all a people business."

A former JIC chairman described MI6 as a "cottage industry", and Professor Aldrich agreed. "It is like their HQ," he said. "From across the river it appears impressive, but from the side you realise it is a lot smaller than it looks. A lot of responsibility for our security rests on the narrow shoulders of SIS."

In 1991 the then head of MI6, Colin McColl, told new recruits: "You can be assured that despite all the changes that are happening in the world today - the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, the increasing closeness of Britain to our European partners, the problems in the Middle East - MI6 has a bright, certain and exciting future."

But the domestic security service on the opposite bank of the river, MI5, is seen as having reacted more quickly and smartly to changing circumstances, gaining responsibility for organised crime, for instance, when the threat of IRA terrorism receded.

MI6 found it harder to adapt from a world in which it was obvious where the main threat was coming from - the Soviet bloc - to one where it never knew where the next problem might arise, such as Sierra Leone. At the end of the Cold War it had about 2,000 staff, but suffered cuts in the search for a "peace dividend", causing a loss of expertise still being felt in the even more diffuse and dangerous post-9/11 world, according to evidence to Butler.

In September 2001 MI6 was down to 1,600 staff. Retired officers, people who had left the services and contract staff with particular skills were hurriedly brought in to tackle the war on terror, filling "Legoland" to capacity. Then the Government, following America's lead into war against Saddam Hussein, demanded an intelligence "surge" on Iraq. "SIS was overstretched," said Professor Aldrich. Unsurprisingly, the results were poor, and the disaster was compounded when politicians made their case against Iraq using raw intelligence, some of which had not been properly assessed.

In the wake of the Butler report Mr Scarlett is likely to get more money and more people. "To be fair to Tony Blair, he did tackle this when he came in," said Professor Aldrich. "The decline has been reversed since 1997."

Some of the increase has been in MI6's ultra-secret military unit, "the Increment", made up of seasoned SAS personnel. Unlike other special forces, it is given tasks directly by officers of MI6, many of them former special forces soldiers themselves. It is known to have operated recently in Afghanistan and to have hunted for indicted war criminals in Bosnia.

Professor Aldrich believes there is still a long way to go. "The equivalent agency in Germany, the BND, has 6,000 staff, and their country's interests are less dispersed around the world," he said. But in this particular cottage industry, quality rather than quantity of people remains paramount, and not everyone is impressed at the calibre of much of MI6's staff. The renegade officer Richard Tomlinson said that in 1991 there were nine recruits in his group, all white men. Most were public school and Oxbridge graduates, or from top-notch regiments like the Scots Guards.

Only one in 10 officers were female, and none was black or Asian. When the priority is infiltrating and tracking down Islamist extremists, that is a problem; although MI6 has tried hard to diversify its recruitment, with an internet presence in the careers section of the Foreign Office website being added last year, it is still struggling.

New Labour policies mean that most students leave university with large debts, making civil service pay even less palatable to recruits who do not enjoy a private income, even though the spooks do better than most.

The old image of public school adventurers propping up the bar at White's may be somewhat outdated - the younger spirits in MI6 prefer the Reform - but you certainly would not expect to find SIS officers in the pubs of Vauxhall. Apart from the security risk, socially they would stand out a mile.

The new "C" would have a tough job ahead of him even without the political baggage he brings. But Tony Blair has faced down opposition to put the man he wants into "Legoland". Mr Scarlett must hope that the witness at the Hutton inquiry who mistakenly referred to him as "Sir John" - an understandable mistake among all the other knighted civil servants - may not be wrong for long. "Not yet Sir John," the witness corrected himself, to laughter. Indeed.

SOME YOU WIN. SOME YOU LOSE

It is the nature of the intelligence business that the successes remain secret: we tend to hear only about the failures.

MI6 was spectacularly successful, however, in penetrating Soviet secrets during the Cold War era. Apart from the KGB London chief Oleg Gordievsky, it recruited Oleg Penkovsky, a military intelligence colonel who passed on crucial secrets. He was caught and executed.

But in 1992 the former KGB chief archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, his family and a vast cache of documents were smuggled out. These revealed undetected Soviet spies in Britain, including Melita Norwood, a 40-year veteran.

Some of MI6's activities can be startling. Renegade officer Richard Tomlinson revealed that it had recruited a high-level mole inside Germany's central bank. Code-named Orcada, he is said to have betrayed the German negotiating position during talks on the Maastricht Treaty.

Among the failures - the most recent being Iraq - some of the most embarrassing have resulted from MI6's often crude attempts to plant stories in the press.

It tried to discredit Boutros Boutros-Ghali shortly before he was elected UN Secretary-General, for example, by putting it about that he was mentally unbalanced, because he believed in UFOs and extraterrestrials.

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