John Scarlett

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Sir John Scarlett

Sir John Scarlett - Chatham House 2011.jpg
Scarlett speaking at a Chatham House event in 2011
Born (1948-08-18) 18 August 1948 (age 72)
Alma materMagdalen College, Oxford
OccupationIntelligence officer
Espionage activity
AllegianceUnited Kingdom Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Service branchSecret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6)
Service years1970–2001; 2004–2009
RankChief of the Secret Intelligence Service

Sir John McLeod Scarlett KCMG OBE (born 18 August 1948) is a British senior intelligence officer. He was Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) from 2004 to 2009.[2] Prior to this appointment, he had chaired the Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).


Fluent in French and Russian, Scarlett was educated at Epsom College and Magdalen College, Oxford, where in 1970 he received a first class degree in history.[3]

In 1968, Scarlett was at Grosvenor Square during the Anti-Vietnam War protests in front of the U.S. embassy and wrote to The Times at the time, criticising the police action.[4]

He was a contemporary of figures including Christopher Hitchens, Robert Jackson, William Waldegrave, Edwina Currie, Stephen Milligan, John Redwood, Jonathan Sumption, William Blair, Bill Clinton and Gyles Brandreth. Shortly afterward, he was recruited by MI6 and served in Moscow, Nairobi (1973–1976), and Paris. In 1994, after a tit-for-tat row between the UK and Russian authorities, Scarlett was expelled from Moscow where he had been MI6's station chief.[5] He retired from MI6 as Director of Security and Public Affairs in 2001, rejoining in 2004.

Joint Intelligence Committee[edit]

Scarlett took on the role of head of the JIC one week before the September 11 attacks.[6]

The normally secretive intelligence services were thrust into the public gaze in the Summer of 2003 after the death of the eminent government weapons expert, Dr David Kelly. Kelly had been found dead in the Oxfordshire countryside near his home, after being exposed as the source of allegations that the government had "sexed-up" intelligence regarding existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The "classic case" was the claim that Iraq could launch Weapons of Mass Destruction "within 45 minutes of an order to do so"—Dr Kelly had privately dismissed this as "risible".[7]

Scarlett gave evidence at the Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Kelly's death.[8] It became clear that Scarlett had worked closely with Alastair Campbell, then the Prime Minister's Director of Communications and Strategy, on the controversial September Dossier, with Campbell making drafting suggestions which the inquiry found may have "subconsciously influenced" Scarlett and the JIC. This influence may have had deleterious effects on the quality of the assessments presented in the dossier. For instance, the Intelligence and Security Committee made several criticisms in their report "Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction: Intelligence and Assessments":

"As the 45 minutes claim was new to its readers, the context of the intelligence and any assessment needed to be explained. The fact that it was assessed to refer to battlefield chemical and biological munitions and their movement on the battlefield, not to any other form of chemical or biological attack, should have been highlighted in the dossier. The omission of the context and assessment allowed speculation as to its exact meaning. This was unhelpful to an understanding of this issue."

Scarlett became the head of SIS on 6 May 2004, before publication of the findings of the Butler Review.[9] Although the review highlighted many failings in the intelligence behind the Iraq war and the workings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, it specifically stated that Scarlett should not resign as head of the Committee and SIS.[10]

On 8 December 2009, Scarlett gave evidence to The Iraq Inquiry. He denied he was under any pressure to "firm up" the September Dossier, and claimed there was "no conscious intention" to mislead about Iraq's weapons but it would have been "better" to have clarified battlefield munitions not missiles were meant.[11][12]

On 26 June 2011, The Guardian reported on a memo from Scarlett to Blair's foreign affairs adviser, released under the Freedom of Information Act, which referred to "the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD Iraq is not that exceptional". The memo has been described as one of the most significant documents on the September dossier yet published as it is considered a proposal to mislead the public.[13]

Post retirement[edit]

On 28 January 2011, Scarlett was appointed to the board of Times Newspapers Ltd, part of News International, which publishes The Times and The Sunday Times.[14][15] He is also a governor of Epsom College,[16] and Chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust.[17]

Knighthood controversy[edit]

Scarlett was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in the Queen's New Years Honours List 2007. Scarlett, while Chairman of the JIC, was the principal author of the assessments on which the September Dossier was based, a document partly by which the Prime Minister justified to Parliament the invasion of Iraq and which was later found to be "flawed" by the Butler Review.[18] The award of a KCMG is normally given to all heads of SIS and senior FCO and British diplomats.


  1. ^ "John Scarlett". MI6 A Century in the Shadows. 3 August 2009. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. ^ "Profile: John Scarlett". BBC News. 30 December 2006. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  3. ^ Rose, David (9 May 2004). "A singular spy". The Observer. London. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  4. ^ "MI6 chief Scarlett...the anti-Vietnam War rebel of Grosvenor Square 40". Evening Standard. 13 January 2008. Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  5. ^ "MI-6 versus KGB-FSB: The Battle in Moscow". Axis News. 30 January 2006. Archived from the original on 29 December 2008. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  6. ^ Evans, Michael (23 August 2003). "Intelligence chief will emerge from a lifetime in the shadows". The Times. London. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  7. ^ "Kelly 'taken aback' by Gilligan grilling". BBC News. 4 September 2003. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  8. ^ Evans, Michael (7 May 2004). "Rise to the top of the spy who came in from the Cold War". The Times. London. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  9. ^ "Iraq inquiry backs new MI6 chief". CNN. 14 July 2004. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  10. ^ Jeffery, Simon (14 July 2004). "Open to doubt and seriously flawed". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  11. ^ "Ex-spy chief says Iraqi WMD claims not manipulated". BBC News. 8 December 2009. Retrieved 28 January 2010.
  12. ^ Family affair, Financial Times, Emiko Terazono, 2 March 2011
  13. ^ Memo reveals intelligence chief's bid to fuel fears of Iraqi WMDs, Chris Ames, The Guardian, 26 June 2011
  14. ^ In the air: Murdoch's daughter joins Times board Archived 17 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Gideon Spanier, London Evening Standard, 2 March 2011
  15. ^ Another Murdoch joins The Times board – with a retired spy, Roy Greenslade, The Guardian, 2 March 2011
  16. ^ "Governing Body". Archived from the original on 22 June 2013. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  17. ^ "Sir John Scarlett KCMG OBE, Chairman". Bletchley Park Trust. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  18. ^ Elliott, Francis (31 December 2006). "'Dodgy dossier' knighthood attacked". The Independent. London. Retrieved 15 June 2008.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Peter Ricketts
Chairman of the
Joint Intelligence Committee

Succeeded by
Sir Richard Mottram
Permanent Secretary, Intelligence, Security and Resilience
Preceded by
Sir Richard Dearlove
Chief of the SIS
Succeeded by
Sir John Sawers