James Bond the MI6 killer was just artistic licence
James Bond has finally been exposed as a fraud. Keith Jeffery's monumental history of MI6 from 1909 to 1949 has scuppered one of the oldest myths about British intelligence - namely, that killing people is routine, reports The Australian
In Ian Fleming's novels, Bond earns his 00 status - the licence to kill - by assassinating a Japanese spy on the 36th floor of the Rockefeller Centre in New York. In the films, he has killed 564 people.
But according to Professor Jeffery in The Secret History of MI6, in the first 40 years of its existence the spy agency was involved in the killing of only two people: one by accident, and the other, a French double agent, executed by French Resistance fighters with the probable connivance of, but no specific orders from, MI6.
In spy parlance, an intelligence operation that involves killing is known as a "wet job". The most remarkable aspect of MI6's history is just how dry it was.
Britain's spies and spymasters were ruthless and often unscrupulous. They broke laws, traded lies and encouraged the citizens of both allied and enemy countries to betray the secrets of their governments. They bribed, bugged, seduced and burgled their way around the globe. But they did not kill people.
Assassination was frowned on, not out of squeamishness, but for hard-nosed pragmatic reasons. MI6 neither wanted nor needed a licence to kill, because it knew the target-killing of enemies is difficult, immoral, liable to create martyrs, and frequently counterproductive. Assassination sometimes changes history, but it seldom changes minds.
MI6 knew this, and avoided extrajudicial killings even in the bloodiest moments of all-out war. Today that principle is under assault as the CIA increasingly uses unmanned drones to hunt down and bomb suspected terrorists in what is euphemistically described as "targeted killing", and state-backed assassins strike from Dubai to London.
The Obama administration, which has vastly expanded covert elimination of its enemies using the drones, justifies the practice on the basis that the targets - in the Afghan-Pakistani border area, Somalia and Yemen - are terrorists and insurgent leaders. Killing them, the CIA insists, can be done cleanly, efficiently and with little or no risk. US spy chiefs believe they should wipe out their enemies because they can.
Britain's spymasters faced an analogous situation in 1944, and came to precisely the opposite conclusion.
In the run-up to D-Day, MI6 and allied military leaders debated whether to launch a co-ordinated campaign of assassination, targeting senior Nazis and their collaborators in occupied France. Those in favour argued, as supporters of "targeted killing" argue today, that it could decapitate the enemy leadership.
Among possible targets were field marshals Rommel and Rundstedt and French officials in the collaborationist Vichy regime. The plan was blocked by MI6.
There was nothing soft-hearted about this decision. Professor Jeffery quotes Bill Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who remarked ferociously at the time: "There are several people in this world whom I could kill with my own hands with a feeling of pleasure and without that action in any way spoiling my appetite." But Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, doubted that picking off individuals would "have much, or any, effect" on enemy capabilities, and regarded systematic assassination as "the type of bright idea which in the end produces a good deal of trouble and does little good".
Above all, it was feared that killing fascist figureheads could reinforce Nazi fanaticism and provoke reprisals. There was an ugly precedent. A year earlier, British-trained Czech partisans had assassinated the Nazi ruler of Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich. In revenge, the Nazis destroyed the village of Lidice, suspected of harbouring partisans, and massacred more than 300 people. In all, about 13,000 people were imprisoned or killed after the assassination.
Although Special Operations Executive agents carried out a number of killings, Churchill ruled that a campaign of assassination could not be countenanced.
French resisters might take matters into their own hands - indeed they could not be prevented from doing so - but sanctioned killing without trial was deemed contrary to the rules of war and probably ineffective. "We should not ourselves designate persons to be liquidated . . . we should steer clear of this business," Churchill said.
It took rare restraint and foresight to appreciate that unleashing secret agents to kill to order in secret would undermine the very principles of law and decency for which the war was being waged.
A similar fear was voiced by the independent UN investigator Philip Alston in a recent critical report on US targeted killings.
"This strongly asserted but ill-defined licence to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the US and other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to prevent extrajudicial killings," the UN official said.
Russia, Israel and the US have all used unmanned drones to kill insurgents, and more than 40 countries now have drone technology. These are the assassins of the future.
The US policy of drone strikes is surrounded by secrecy. The CIA declines to identify who is identified as a shoot-to-kill target, why, and how many civilians have died as a result of the targeted killings.
The Obama administration insists that targeted airstrikes are seriously damaging the al-Qa'ida and Taliban leadership, but there are signs they may be provoking the sort of backlash feared by Britain's wartime leaders.
The British wartime spy chiefs knew there could be no justification for allowing secret hitmen to kill with impunity. In eroding the long-established prohibition against state-backed assassination, the intelligence services are moving farther from the principled and pragmatic stand that won World War II - and closer to the bleak and lawless world of James Bond.
Discuss this news here...