Row as author of Iraq dossier is made head of MI6
Friday May 7, 2004
Tony Blair yesterday provoked a fresh political row over the role of the intelligence agencies by appointing John Scarlett, the official responsible for the widely disputed Iraqi weapons dossier, as the new head of MI6.
His appointment is likely to cause unease in the intelligence community, where officers have recently expressed concern that Mr Scarlett allowed himself to step over the red line dividing their profession from politicians in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The move was immediately denounced by the Conservative leadership as "inappropriate", particularly since Lord Butler's review into the handling of intelligence on Iraq's alleged stock of weapons of mass destruction - none of which has been found - has yet to publish its findings.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, described the appointment as "highly controversial" in the light of his evidence to the Hutton inquiry. The Liberal Democrats boycotted Lord Butler's inquiry on the grounds that its remit was too narrow. Mr Howard later followed suit.
Mr Blair strongly defended the appointment, describing Mr Scarlett as "a fine public servant who has served Conservative and Labour governments over many, many years". He added: "I think it is unfortunate if it gets embroiled in party politics, or people try to make political capital out of it."
It is extremely rare for the intelligence agencies to be embroiled in party political controversy. It is also potentially hugely damaging at a time the government is warning of unprecedented threats from international terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Jack Straw, the foreign secretary and the minister responsible for MI6, described Mr Scarlett, a former station chief in Moscow, as having "the operational background, personal qualities and wide experience to be a worthy successor" to Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, to give it its proper title.
Downing Street said yesterday that Mr Scarlett was appointed to the post of "C" - for Chief, the official title of the head of MI6 - on the recommendation of a panel chaired by the prime minister's security and intelligence coordinator, Sir David Omand.
Sir David works closely with Mr Scarlett and both strongly defended the weapons dossier and sharply attacked the BBC's reports when they gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of the government weapons expert, David Kelly.
Mr Scarlett developed a close personal relationship with Alastair Campbell, then the prime minister's communications chief, during the drafting of the Iraqi dossier.
He defended Downing Street's successful attempts to strengthen the language of the dossier, including changes which implied that Saddam Hussein posed a much greater threat to British interests than earlier drafts had admitted.
Evidence to the Hutton inquiry revealed that Mr Scarlett was sent by Downing Street to take the hardened version of the dossier to show the Americans shortly before it was published in Britain in September 2002.
Mr Scarlett told the inquiry that he, and not Downing Street, was responsible for the weapons dossier. He had "ownership" of it, he insisted in evidence which defended ministers, implicitly criticised the BBC, and helped to persuade Lord Hutton to clear the government and officials at No 10 from charges of political interference in the work of the intelligence agencies.
Sir Richard last year appointed Nigel Inkster as his deputy inside MI6. There had been a general assumption that Mr Inkster would take the top job, given the public controversyaround Mr Scarlett.
Mr Straw yesterday described MI6 as being "in the frontline of our defence against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and other threats".
However, there is concern in the intelligence community that the controversy over the weapons dossier - combined with the failure to find any WMD stocks in Iraq - is continuing to damage their reputation at a time when the government is expected increasingly to use intelligence as a reason for military action, as well as for the arrest of suspected terrorists.
Mr Blair suggested Mr Scarlett's appointment could open the way to greater openness by the intelligence agencies.