Licence to kill (concept)

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A licence to kill is a licence granted by a government or government agency to a particular operative or employee to initiate the use of lethal force in the delivery of their objectives. The initiation of lethal force is in contrast to the use of lethal force in self-defence or the protection of life. It is well known as a literary device used in espionage fiction.


The legitimacy of deadly force usage from country to country is generally controlled by statute, particular and direct executive orders, the common law, or rules of engagement.

Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service MI6, testified in court as part of the 2007–2008 Diana, Princess of Wales Inquest in agreement with a statement that the SIS (MI6) could only use force "likely to cause injury" if specially authorized to do so by the UK Foreign Secretary.[1]

Dearlove also testified in the same inquest that he was unaware of anyone ever having been assassinated by MI6 during his time as head from 1999 to 2004.[2]

Former MI6 agent Matthew Dunn stated that MI6 agents do not need a licence to kill as a spy's primary job is to violate the law in other countries, and if an agent is compromised, they are at the mercy of the authorities of that country.[3]

The idea of a licence to kill is popularly known from the James Bond novels and films, where it is signified by the "00" (Double O) designation given to the agents in the series who are licensed to kill; Bond himself is famously agent 007.

In literary portrayals, the licence is presumed to be a discretionary one, distributed rarely and requiring extensive training to obtain, granted only to a handful of covert agents of a state in the interest of national security. The agent is not necessarily expected to kill enemies as part of a mission, but may receive legal immunity from prosecution (in their own country) if in the agent's opinion, it became necessary to complete it.

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  1. ^ "Coroner's Inquests into the Deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mr Dodi Al Fayed". The National Archives. 20 February 2008. Retrieved 8 September 2020. 'It is inconceivable that, in ordinary circumstances, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State or any of his successors – or for that matter, predecessors – would authorise the use of lethal force. No force likely to cause injury, far less lethal force,could be used and be lawful unless it was authorised, because of the impact of the 1948 Act. the only lawful force that could be used abroad is that authorised through an authorisation issued by the Secretary of State.' [...] 'I do not want to exclude the ability to do so in those circumstances, but I can say that assassination is no part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government.' the statement consists of quotes from multiple sources, which Dearlove is asked whether or not they agree to (see 21.9)
  2. ^ "Coroner's Inquests into the Deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mr Dodi Al Fayed". The National Archives. 20 February 2008. Retrieved 8 September 2020. Q. During the whole of your time, Sir Richard, with SIS, 1966 through to 2004, were you ever aware of the service assassinating anyone? A. No, I was not. (see 26.22)
  3. ^ "Real life James Bond – I never got the girl or the gadgets". Fox News. Retrieved 12 November 2012.