In fiction, James Bond drew quite judiciously upon his license to kill, bumping off just 38 adversaries in a dozen Ian Fleming novels. In each case, the individual received his or her just deserts.
In real life, MI6 (British foreign intelligence) insists its officers do not kill anyone.
“Assassination,” former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove has said, “is no part of the policy of Her Majesty’s government” and would be entirely contrary to the agency’s ethos.
However, there can be circumstances in which MI6 officers do have a license to kill or commit any other crime, enshrined in a curious and little-known law that was intended to protect British spies from being prosecuted or sued in the UK after committing crimes abroad.
Section 7 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act offers protection not only to spies involved in bugging or bribery, but also to any embroiled in more serious matters, such as murder, kidnap or torture — as long as their actions were authorized in writing by the secretary of state. As such, the section is certain to come under intense scrutiny in the months ahead, as detectives and human rights lawyers pore over the details of the secret rendition operations that MI6 ran in co-operation with former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2004.
Last month, Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service announced that the operations, in which two Libyan dissidents were abducted and taken to Tripoli with their families, were to be the subject of a criminal investigation. A few days later, lawyers for both families began civil proceedings against former head of counter-terrorism at MI6 Mark Allen, accusing him of complicity in their “extraordinary rendition,” torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Proceedings against the government, MI6 and MI5 (the national security service) are to follow.
The case is based in large part upon documents discovered in an abandoned Libyan government office in September last year. These showed that the abductions were plotted with the help of MI6: It was all part of the rapprochement between Qaddafi and the UK and US.
When a researcher for Human Rights Watch stumbled upon the documents, no attempt was made to deny MI6 involvement in the renditions.
Instead, government sources in London said the operations were part of “ministerially authorized government policy.”
The statement was a signal that a secretary of state had signed off a “clause 7 authorization” under the Intelligence Services Act.
Section 7 is titled Authorisation of Acts outside the British Islands, and says: “If, apart from this section, a person would be liable in the United Kingdom for any act done outside the British Islands, he shall not be so liable if the act is one which is authorised to be done by virtue of an authorisation given by the secretary of state under this section.”
It adds that liable in the UK “means liable under the criminal or civil law of any part of the United Kingdom.”
The “acts” can take place only overseas and remain illegal both under the laws of the country where they are committed and possibly under international law. However, Section 7 says, with the stroke of a pen the secretary of state can rule that no UK law can be brought to bear.
The act had been drafted as a consequence of a series of European court judgements in the 1980s that forced Britain’s ultra-secretive intelligence agencies to emerge into the public domain.