Casino Royale, the 21st installment in the James Bond franchise, is set to open on Friday. The plot of the prequel details how the debonair spy becomes Agent 007. Upon earning his double-O license, Bond sets off on his long career of dispatching bad guys. Do British secret agents really have a license to kill?
Yes, but you won't find those loaded words in the relevant statute. With the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, the British government publicly acknowledged the existence of the agency responsible for foreign espionage—the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6—and set up a system of parliamentary accountability for it.
Under Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act, the secretary of state can authorize persons to commit acts abroad for which they may not be held liable under British law. By implication, that includes all criminal law relating to the use of lethal force. Only two constraints are listed. It must be the case that the acts are "necessary for the proper discharge of a function of the Intelligence Service" and that their "likely consequences will be reasonable" with respect to their purpose. Also, an authorization, though renewable, may last for only six months. Despite its protections, the act does not and cannot immunize agents from the law of the foreign lands in which they operate.
Prior to 1994, agents acting outside the British Islands would officially have been exposed to ordinary U.K. law. However, the Intelligence Services Act codified what had essentially been de facto internal policy regarding covert action abroad. No MI6 officer has ever publicly admitted to (or been charged with) killing an enemy of the state, but a few assassinations are believed to have taken place during World War II and the early Cold War. Officially, SIS banned the internal origination and approval of assassinations in the 1960s. In any case, contrary to popular imagination, paramilitary action has long been carried out almost wholly by British Special Forces or foreign third parties, not by MI6.
In Ian Fleming's novels and short stories, Bond uses his license some 38 or 39 times, but never against a wrong or undeserving person. Only once, in a short story in the collection For Your Eyes Only, does 007 plan to kill for an unofficial purpose (but even then at the request of M, the head of MI6). Bond kills scores more in the movies, but his lethal discretion becomes an issue only in Licence to Kill. After he resigns to pursue a personal vendetta, his license gets revoked.
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Explainer thanks Richard M. Bennett of AFI Research, Philip Davies of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, Stephen Dorril of the University of Huddersfield, and Clive Walker of the University of Leeds School of Law.