Arresting the decline at SIS - Spear's Magazine

Arresting the decline at SIS

Whether Sawers can reverse the decline in SIS’s fortunes managed by Scarlett remains to be seen

Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sir John Sawers, is to be appointed SIS’s Chief when John Scarlett retires in November 2009, three months after his sixtieth birthday, an extension of service that will enable him to supervise SIS’s centenary celebrations. 

The choice of Sawers over the other widely-touted candidate, Charles Parr, is an interesting one, as he is not actually a complete outsider, and joined SIS before transferring to the Foreign Office and working as private secretary to a minister of state in 1986. Previously he had served at Century House and then in Damascus, so he cannot really be said to be the first non-internal Chief since the disastrous Sir John Rennie.

Whether Sawers can reverse the decline in SIS’s fortunes managed by Scarlett remains to be seen, but there was widespread resentment that Scarlett was brought back into SIS in 2004 as a reward for his loyalty to Downing Street while chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Scarlett was unique in SIS’s history in that he was expelled from Russia when one of his sources turned out to be working for the SVR, was responsible for the Vasili Mitrokhin fiasco, and then engaged in political pamphleteering by approving the Blair government’s ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. To have been returned to SIS, over-age, was astonishing, so Sawers could hardly do worse.

There is, of course, a continuing debate about ‘C’’s role. Is he famously ’to speak truth unto power’ and pass on bad news to the prime minister, however unpalatable, or is he, as Colin McColl insisted, an instrument of political power, doing the government’s bidding?

The issue has never been resolved, but with Sawers’ policy background it may be that there is a danger, yet again, of the Chief being sucked into the Downing Street policy-making cabal. For the sake of the Service’s integrity, so hideously compromised by his predecessor, Sawers should resist that temptation.