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Modern Spies Review: Is There Really A Licence To Kill In MI5 And MI6, Like James Bond?

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How true to life is TV espionage like 'Spooks'? 'Modern Spies' investigates the reality
How true to life is TV espionage like 'Spooks'? 'Modern Spies' investigates the reality

In the second part of this engrossing series, reporter Peter Taylor contented himself with asking of the modern security services two deceptively simple questions - how far may spies go to protect us from a terrorist attack, and is there a licence to kill?

As with last week's episode, the programme first showed the glamorous images of spies we’re used to on TV and film, where it’s all state-of-the-art technology and limitless powers to do with it as they will.

The reality is that to be effective, surveillance often needs to be intrusive, into the personal lives of a minority, and this must be weighed against the services’ remit to protect the majority.

This tightrope is obviously walked on a daily basis, and it was comforting to see how reflective the people responsible for such glass-against-the-wall activities are. Phrases such as “proportionate response” rolled off the tongues of intelligence officers while, higher up the chain of command, we heard about a “regime of accountability” and “moral compass”. But… protecting the innocent was pretty high up the list of considerations too. Something tells me not many of them lose much sleep over this aspect of their duties.

Perhaps more worrying for them is the risk of entrapment, ie crossing the line and encouraging someone else to commit a crime. The moral implications of this were not so much discussed as the fact that, if proved, it means an otherwise good case can be thrown out of court, as happened during one example in Northern Ireland.

It’s a grey area, and I loved the stonewalling of one counter-terrorism chief when asked about the ‘bump’, the undercover courting of a target – “if you tell me this is a critical first step, then I’m sure it is,” he sternly told the poker-faced Taylor.

Modern Spies Part One Review: Debunks Some Myths, Creates Others

Our stateside friends, it seems, can go a lot further along the tightrope of potential entrapment than what would be considered ‘proper’ for British officers, and equally a licence to kill appears to have more room for interpretation overseas too.

All MI5 an MI6 officers were vehement in denying all myths – they’re not rogues, they don’t work for paramilitary organisations and they never, ever go off and do their own thing a la 007. It’s all a bit more mundane, with a clear framework decided by the government.

But, once again, it seemed another set of rules existed for some overseas operatives, as four unfortunate Iranian nuclear scientists found to their cost. No one was saying anything specific, but the word Mossad (Israel’s overseas intelligence) kept being bandied about, at which point Peter Taylor proved his investigative chops in producing a hell of a scoop – a previous interview he’d conducted with a senior Israeli who admitted they did employ a licence to kill after their athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics.

Lest we think the Brits are still playing cricket when it comes to all this, Taylor was careful to hold them to account over the shoot-to-kill policy, voraciously denied by the government after three IRA members were shot by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988.

And the UK’s part in rendition, which Jack Straw dismissed when he was Foreign Secretary, but evidence of which the programme produced following the fall of Gadaffi in Libya.

All in all, this was a fascinating series, balancing bits and bobbles of hands-on-the-wheel spycraft with the bigger ethical dilemmas being played out when, in a democratic society at least, secrecy has to be justified.

Most affecting of all were the personal reflections of the security service personnel. Last week, we heard about the loneliness of a job where neither triumphs nor disappointments can be shared. This week, it was their motivations and personal reactions to such tragedies as London’s July 2005 bombing. As one intelligence officer – “Shami” - observed, “it was a major motivation in my joining the service, to help prevent anything like that happening again.”

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