James Bond celebrates with a licence to kill. (And he is not an agent)

October 5th, 2012 is Global James Bond day As we mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No.


1. Does James Bond has any personal quality which will be very helpful if he would be a real agent? And what would be his biggest weakness?

2. If we look at the world of intelligence services and special operation who is carrying a licence to kill these days? The drones?


Anthony GleesProfessor, Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham

1. Because I am a professor, I’m paid to be pedantic and it’s important to realise that Bond was an officer in MI6, not one of its ‘agents’ (i.e. he had a full time job rather than being paid by an MI6 officer to do specific things). Indeed, if you remember, during the Olympics opening sequences with the Queen, she said something like ‘Good Evening *Commander* Bond’. The only officers we refer to as ‘agents’ are FBI officers who are called ‘agents’. Even CIA officers are called officers and not ‘agents’.

Moving on to the real question you ask here, I’d say that James Bond does have the two central qualities that a secret service officer needs, namely extreme bravey and be a chancer. Secret service work can be very dangerous — think of the near death of the MI6 officers picked up a year ago in Libya, sent with SAS officers (of whom more later) to make contact with the anti-Gaddafi rebels. What’s more the penalty for intelligence officers who are uncovered in hostile countries can be death (it’s almost always death for their ‘agents’). But it’s true, too, that good secret intelligence officers have to be ‘Rob Roys’ — taking chances, walking the narrow line between what’s acceptable and unacceptable, between criminality (in the officers’ home country — by definition all spooks break the laws of the country in which they operate) and lawfulness. They have to get near to their targets and to win agents, if that is what they are tasked to do (and most MI6 officers do just this) and this can mean using cash (suitcases full of it), sex and drink (it is always said that you can tell the difference between an MI6 officer and an MI5 officer because the former drink a bottle of wine by themselves at lunch, and the latter will barely touch a glass). The need to get close to targets has often made it hard to spot MI6 officers who have been ‘turned’ by the other side. You have people like Philby who get close to Communists, this is known about, and applauded (it’s his job) but then it becomes almost impossible to work out that he’s actually working with the people he’s meant to be targeting.

The biggest weakness comes, I think, from the booze if they can’t take it but perhaps most importantly from the fact that — as they see it — it’s their job to clean the sewerage from the streets at night without waking up the good citizens. They work for ‘the Crown’ (literally, they are not ‘civil servants’) but rarely acknowledged by ‘the Crown’. They deal in lies, in filth, in criminality and it’s hard for them to retain their moral compass. Bearing in mind that in the UK intelligence officers have to retire at 55, they can have quite a lot of life left in which to go to seed. Often the women cope much better than the men (e.g. Daphne Park who died a few years ago and was a really great woman, like Miss Marple out of Agatha Christie — you would never have guessed that she hid African politicians escaping from African tyrants in the boot of her Morris Minor as she crossed the borders from one country to another).

2. Thirty years ago I asked Sir Dick White — former head of MI6 and of MI5 — whether as ‘C’ of MI6 he had a ‘licence to kill’. He said ‘of course’ in the same way as any commander of any British forces anywhere has a licence to kill in war. I think he meant it. However, he said that he had, in peacetime, never exercised this licence and I was inclined to believe him. That said, whilst MI6 officers don’t kill, they work very closely with SAS officers, and ordinary ground troops who do kill. They don’t fire the triggers but they guide the bullets to their targets. Currently, MI6, as far as I know, don’t use drones themselves but will assist with their targeting; GCHQ officers do the same thing. But please don’t forget another sort of targeting — via cyber. This is an area where MI6 wishes to develop its capabilities — the man found dead in a black bag, whose inquest was held earlier this year — was a GCHQ officer on secondment to MI6 to help them develop their cyber attack capacity.

Michael Smith writes on defence and security issues for the Sunday Times and New Statesman, Author of various books including – SIX: The Real James Bonds

1. James Bond has guile and charm which are essential attributes for any secret service officer. He needs both to be able to persuade people that they should provide him with the information he is tasked to collect. These are also essential abilities for a good agent handler. He is fit which is also good given that over the past two decades MI6 officers have found themselves on the ground in various conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. He is of course too well known and completely fails to remain in the shadows, which is his greatest flaw.

2. Anyone going into a war zone needs a gun. MI6 officers are trained to fire weapons at an old Napoleonic era fort on the south coast of England. They are taught by a former special forces weapons instructor. They also employ a number of former special forces operators to assist MI6 officers operating in war zones. MI6 officers are allowed to kill in self-defence and under the terms of the UK’s Intelligence Services Act can commit any act outside of the UK that might be deemed a crime under British law, so long as the Foreign Secretary has endorsed the mission. So whatever their bosses might say in public, Bond still has his licence to kill.

Kristian Gustafson, Lecturer in Intelligence Studies Politics and History, Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, Brunel University

1. First, one is an MI6 “Officer” not an “agent”. The real job of an MI6 officer is to recruit and “handle” agents. It is technically the agents, traitors to their cause or their country, who are the “spies”. To be an intelligence officer you need to be charming and persuasive, so if there is one aspect of the very fictional Bond that might mirror reality it is his charm. But in real life one has to charm men as well as women! The aspects of the fictional Bond that are VERY fictional are the martial arts and the gun play. An MI6 field officer will probably never carry a gun. If he (or she) does, it is only ever likely to blow their cover or get them arrested by the national security services. They survive by their wits, and perhaps sometimes by a little bit of clever driving (but likely in beat-up old cars instead of Aston Martins). The aim in real life is for no one to ever notice the intelligence officer. In the movies Bond is seen and known by everyone–in real life that gets you killed.

2. This is a touchy point. In a theatre of war, such as Afghanistan, there exists a general licence to kill a positively identified enemy combatant, so in this case one doesn’t really need a Bond-like figure. But you may be right in identifying UAV’s as the agent of execution in many of the “ungoverned” spaces of the world (Somalia, Yemen, Waziristan, etc). But let us not depersonalise it: those UAVs are not autonomous, they have a pilot. So if you extend the argument, the “licence to kill” is held by a young man or women playing a real-life video game in an air-conditioned room somewhere on an air base in the United States. No martinis or fast cars, just long-distance destruction and home for a meal with the family. Not so glamorous….


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