The announcement today that Sir John Scarlett is retiring as ‘C’, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), is extremely interesting — not least because the man who will replace him, Sir John Sawers (52) will be the first ‘C’ to come from outside the Service since 1968 when (Sir) John Rennie, a deputy under-secretary in the Foreign Office, took over from Sir Dick White.
However, he is not a complete outsider as far as SIS is concerned — he was recruited into it in 1977 but, according to the government, left the service in the 1980s to become a diplomat and it was as a diplomat that he made his career. His past posts, including Pretoria, Washington and Cairo (where he was appointed ambassador in 2001), and (according to Michael Evans in ‘The Times’) his particular interest in Iranian nuclear plans, give him the very best qualifications for his new job as ‘C’.
The last 8 ‘C’s (Scarlett, Dearlove, Spedding, McColl, Curwen, Figures, Franks and Oldfield) all came directly from within the ranks of SIS. Many observers believed that it proved numerous governments of the day regarded SIS as an institution which was sufficiently mature to generate its own head. One in whose internal integrity the public could trust.
An outside appointment would have been regarded as an indication that there were issues of ‘no confidence’ within SIS which required sorting by an outsider, not bound by internal loyalties or feuding. It seems fair to assume that the government has today wanted to be seen giving SIS a brisk shake-up. Appointing Sir John Sawyers as the new ‘C’ will be widely regarded as a fresh start for SIS.
Why might this have been thought necessary?
One phrase that springs to mind is ‘public trust’. Rightly or wrongly (we would argue almost certainly wrongly), there is a trust deficit in respect of our secret agencies, particularly as regards SIS.
On the BUCSIS Blog, Lord Carlile QC has pointed out that Britain’s Intelligence agencies do not enjoy as much public trust as one might hope; he points a finger at the very WMD controversy (where SIS intelligence was the driver) with which Sir John Scarlett’s name will always be associated, in part at any rate. There is no doubt that MI5’s reputation is, deservedly, strong at present; it is equally certain that SIS did suffer from the failure to find WMD. It is one thing for a secret service to fail to find something that exists; it is a far worse failure to find something that doesn’t exist.
At the same time, there has been no evidence that SIS ‘invented’ WMD intelligence and although mistakes were made, what we know today suggests they were made in good faith, just as Lord Hutton found. Intelligence services will always get things wrong. However, the WMD failure was a very serious one indeed, perhaps the most serious since the failure to predict Hitler’s 1944 Ardennes Offensive.
It has sometimes been asked why Sir John Scarlett did not resign from government service after the Butler Review implied he had not always acted as well as he might have done. The answer supplied was frequently that to get rid of the person in charge is not ‘the British way’.
Today, it seems hard to think that it would not have been in the public interest and, above all, in the interests of the SIS if there had been some resignations, starting with the then prime minister Tony Blair. But all this is now water under the bridge.
The prime minister, Gordon Brown, has stated that there was no connection between Sir John’s retirement and the Iraq Inquiry which he announced yesterday. Sir John is 60 years old and was appointed in 2004. His departure does not appear to be premature. However, unusually, it has been said that he will continue to work within the UK Intelligence Community although where has not been spelled out. Could he become the head of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, SOCA, whose current head, Sir Stephen Lander (the former director general of MI5) is about to step down?
That said, Sir John will face yet more difficult times as the Inquiry gets underway. He was Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (the JIC) at the time of the 2002 Weapons of Mass Destruction Dossier. So will his predecessor as ‘C’, Sir Richard Dearlove, and Sir David Omand, now a professor at Kings College London, but at the time of the attack on Iraq, Tony Blair’s Security and Intelligence Coordinator. These three men lie at the centre of the debate about the trust we should have in our secret agencies.
Sir John Chilcot, a former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland office, will chair the Inquiry. He has acted as staff counsellor to the secret services and, amongst other inquiries, has looked at the security of the Royal Family in 2000 (once again a matter of public interest). The details of the Inquiry will be fascinating. It will, for example, be revealing to see where Sir John’s Inquiry will be located. Will it be within the Cabinet Office (the key place to be, according to Lord Butler, if one is to have the authority to get at the actual facts)? Or in a sub-prime site which the great and the good can avoid?
Sir John Chilcot is, of course, well acquainted with the world of intelligence-led policy and politics. He is a man of unimpeachable integrity. He will almost certainly find the idea of a secret Inquiry unpalatable. The two academics appointed to the Inquiry, Sir Martin Gilbert (the noted Churchill and Holocaust historian) and Sir Laurence Freedman (a colleague of Sir David Omand’s at Kings College, London and author of a history of the Falklands campaign) will have to fight hard to win the public’s confidence in this Inquiry which is, in a real sense, the sixth into the origins of the Iraq War but perhaps the first which will consider the failure to plan properly for the occupation of Iraq after Saddam’s overthrow. Cynics will be forgiven that, once again, the ‘establishment’ is inquiring into itself and will, once again, avoid spelling out the truth in ways the public will be able to accept.
Neither Sir Martin nor Sir Laurence have taken a public stand, one way or the other, over the attack on Iraq and, as far as one can tell, neither of them have any research track record in this field.
There is one other important aspect to this matter. As was argued in ‘The Open Side of Secrecy’ in 2006, the Intelligence and Security Committee (which had two go’s at the Iraq War) has failed to convince the public that our intelligence agencies can be trusted.
In happier times, the prime minister promised a thorough review of the UK’s intelligence oversight machinery. We have heard not much about it since. Yet a new and better oversight committee is even more vital today than ever before. A strong committee with a team of investigators (the current ISC has none at all) is the best possible remedy for the lack of trust in our intelligence agencies. Yet another Inquiry into the Iraq War, one conducted in secret, for goodness sake, is unlikely to command public confidence, nor does it deserve to.
Anthony Glees, Philip Davies and John Morrison The Open Side of Secrecy: Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee published by The Social Affairs Unit in 2006 ISBN 1-904863-16-7
Anthony Glees and Philip Davies Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry published by The Social Affairs Unit in 2004 ISBN 1-904863-01-9