U.K. appoints a new "C"

Published 18 June 2009

Outsider Sir John Sawers appointed new head of MI6, the U.K. Secret Intelligence Service; by tradition, the head of MI6 is called “C” (for “Chief”), and he writes all internal memos in green ink

Breaking with tradition, the U.K. government chose an outsider to be the new head of MI6. Sir John Sawers, 53, who is the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. He will become the Chief — or “C,” as the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is called in Whitehall — in November. He will replace Sir John Scarlett, who is retiring after more than five years in the post.

The Times’s Michael Evans writes that the surprise appointment was announced by David Miliband, the foreign secretary. When he becomes “C” — writing all internal memos in green ink — Sawers will play a vital role in ensuring that new guidelines on the questioning of terrorist detainees are enforced rigidly by MI6’s intelligence officers. The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee was asked by Gordon Brown to draw up fresh guidelines, after the row over the CIA’s alleged torture-treatment of al-Qaeda suspects.

Sir John Sawers began his career with MI6 in 1977, serving in Yemen and Syria. He then switched to the Diplomatic Service in the 1980s, following a more conventional path as a British envoy, and was appointed political director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2003.

Sawers attended Beechen Cliff School, formerly the City of Bath Boys’ School, in Somerset, where, at the age of 18, he broke, and holds to this day, the 400 meters hurdle record. It stands at 59.4 seconds.

Looking ahead to the challenges facing the new “C”, Mr Miliband said: “International terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the growth of regional conflict and instability mean that there has never been a time when the skills and dedication of our intelligence agencies, including SIS, have been more necessary to our national security and the safety of our people around the world.”