Should British spies have a ‘licence to kill’? The late John le Carre would have enjoyed this debate

The news that MI6 may be committing crimes in the UK is worthy material for a spy novel, says Mary Dejevsky. More importantly, it raises the question of whether our secret services need more or less oversight

Friday 18 December 2020 01:05
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John Le Carre has died aged 89
John Le Carre has died aged 89

John le Carre, the writer whose fiction illuminated the ambiguities of espionage and treachery more than any factual accounts could ever do, died last weekend at the age of 89. And he would surely have savoured the irony. The timing was such that appreciative obituaries and warm personal memoirs found themselves sharing media space with some of the more tantalising glimpses afforded to the British public in recent years of the often uneasy relationship between spies and the law. 

One of these, worthy of a Le Carre novel on its own, was the revelation that MI6 had been rapped over the knuckles by the official watchdog for not giving the foreign secretary information about a potential, or proven, “rogue” agent. Under the law, the foreign secretary is in charge of both MI6 (officially SIS) and the intelligence-gathering agency, GCHQ, and must sign off on anything that might put an agent on the wrong side of the law. A section of the Intelligence Services Act (1994), dubbed the “James Bond clause”, or “licence to kill”, exempts British agents operating abroad from prosecution in the UK, so long as they have the foreign secretary’s authorisation for whatever they were doing.

In this case, it appears, from the report of the watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, the foreign secretary was asked to sign off on the retention of this particular agent, without being told that he was considered “high-risk” – a term that could cover criminal activity, up to and including killing. The lack of this information effectively severed the line of judicial, let alone moral, accountability. In effect, MI6 was effectively circumventing the flimsy government oversight that currently exists.

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