The appointment of John Scarlett

There’s nothing new these days about the public announcement of the appointment and name of the new head of the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, commonly called MI6 (or, often by the Guardian newspaper, ‘M16’).  Gone are the days when the identity of ‘C’ was a closely guarded secret, not least because the very existence of SIS was an even more closely guarded secret, although from whom it was kept secret was always a bit of a mystery.   The latest appointment however aroused a good deal of media comment, some of it hostile.  Unusually, the name of the new ‘Chief’ was already widely familiar:  John Scarlett, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and ‘owner’ of the famous, or infamous, government dossier on Iraq’s WMD, witness in the Hutton Inquiry, ‘mate’ of Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair.    Scarlett’s appointment to the top MI6 job, over the head of his predecessor’s deputy (the position from which past appointments to head the Service have generally, perhaps always, been made), has been queried on several grounds.  

First, it emerged from the Hutton report and the dossier affair that Scarlett had become personally exceptionally close to the prime minister and his No. 10 staff, perhaps closer than might have been expected from their professional relationships alone.  Was this another top job for a Tony’s crony?  I doubt if there’s much substance to this.  It’s probably a good thing when the heads of the main intelligence and security services get on well with the prime minister and his immediate staff.  The prime minister seems not to have played any part in the choice of Scarlett beyond endorsing the recommendation of the selection panel set up to advise the foreign secretary and prime minister on the appointment, so there’s no serious indication of nepotism or other impropriety here.  But it’s perhaps legitimate to wonder whether Scarlett would be able to establish an equally satisfactory relationship with a Tory prime minister in the event of a change of government during his tenure, after having been so close to the Blair people.   

Secondly, there seems to have been a quite unnecessary, and wholly undesirable, degree of secretiveness about the selection process.  Downing Street referred all questions about the details of the procedure to the Cabinet Office, which merely kept repeating that the usual procedures had been followed.  The selection panel had been headed by Sir David Omand, the government’s ‘security and intelligence coordinator’ and permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office.  According to a useful account of all this by Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, in the Guardian of 10 May 2004, the Downing Street official spokesman, asked in a lobby briefing who had been the other members of the selection panel chaired by Omand, gave the memorable reply that "it [wasn’t] our policy to provide details of Civil Service Commission practice".  Only in Britain could an official spokesman get away with such an extraordinary statement.  If it isn’t "our" policy to provide details of Civil Service Commission practice, it jolly well should be, and it’s greatly to be hoped that when the long-delayed Freedom of Information Act comes into force next year (2005), it will soon be used to extract some information about these hitherto unrevealed practices of the body responsible for the appointments and impartiality of our civil servants.  

But the third and much more substantial reason for concern over Scarlett’s appointment must be that in his capacity as Chairman of the JIC (and an SIS officer with a distinguished career in that Service), his work on the government’s Iraq WMD dossier, conducted in very close collaboration with Campbell and other members of the No. 10 Downing Street staff, made an unprecedented breach in the hitherto impregnable firewall between the collection, analysis and interpretation of intelligence on the one hand, and the conduct and public presentation of government policy on the other.  Once drawn into the realm of policy discussion, advice and formulation with ministers and their policy officials, intelligence officers are inevitably exposed to the pressure and temptation to doctor the intelligence material which they interpret and present so as to make it support (or cast doubt on) particular policies or policy proposals which they are simultaneously recommending or questioning in their policy roles.  Such doctoring may happen almost unconsciously, in the selection of the intelligence submitted to ministers, in its interpretation, or just in a certain slant in the way in which it is reported.  One only has to read the evidence given to the Hutton Inquiry to see how easily this can happen, with No. 10 pressing the intelligence community for ever more evidence of Iraq’s possession of WMD and programmes for developing them, and senior intelligence officers desperately urging their subordinates to conduct yet another search for material to satisfy No. 10.  It should be for ministers and their officials to decide what weight to give to impartially supplied intelligence in formulating their policies, and then to find the most persuasive ways of presenting those policies to the public:  not for intelligence officers to search their files for snippets of intelligence that can be made to appear to support policies already decided.  It’s reported, accurately or otherwise, that a number of senior and middle-ranking SIS officers have been worried by Scarlett’s apparent breach of these fundamental principles in the context of the writing of the dossier:  if so, it’s easy to imagine how they must feel about his appointment as their Chief.  Still, the Omand panel was apparently adamant that Scarlett was the best man for the job, and if they were right, it couldn’t have been right to appoint anyone else.  Might it not however have been prudent and tactful to defer the appointment and its announcement until the government has seen the report of the Review of  Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction currently being conducted by Lord Butler, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, and four eminent colleagues, in case their report turns out to include criticism of John Scarlett — which could be even more embarrassing than otherwise now that Scarlett has already been awarded the top prize in his Service?  Anyway, it would obviously be irresponsible to suggest that those interested in the Butler Review, its membership, terms of reference, methods of procedure, etc., after they have visited its website by clicking on the link in the last sentence, should then compare it with a very funny spoof of the same website whose website address is most improperly close to that of the real website — and which indeed is the first result thrown up by Google if you do a search for ‘Butler Inquiry Intelligence’.  So I make no such irresponsible suggestion.