Is new MI6 head really an outsider?

Sir John Sawers

Sir John Sawers

Soon after Downing Street announced the pending appointment of Sir John Sawers to the post of Director of MI6, Britain’s primary external intelligence agency, many hurried to call the choice a “break with tradition”. This is because Sir John’s official career description is that of a diplomat. It is true that appointing anyone other than a seasoned intelligence professional to the helm of MI6 or MI5 is highly unusual. The last time this happened was in 1968, when Sir John Rennie, also a diplomat, was tasked to head MI6. But how much of an intelligence outsider is Sawers, really? The truth is that he will actually be rejoining MI6, where he began his career in 1977, serving in Syria and Yemen, among other places. The question that nobody in Whitehall will answer is when exactly Sawers left the service. The London Times claims he did so “in the 1980s”, when he joined the diplomatic service. The question is, of course, did he actually leave MI6? Or did he linger in one of the agency’s many desks that overlap with Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service? Heaven forbid that one of Britain’s top representatives in the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement, who was heavily involved in the Kosovo conflict, and who served in UK embassies in Cairo and Washington, among other places, would have been on the payroll of MI6! A British government spokesperson refused to speculate on this, saying that it would “not be appropriate” to say when Sir John left MI6. Sawers will be replacing the current MI6 Director, Sir John Scarlett, who will be retiring in a few months.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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