Licence to kill (concept)

Licence to kill is the official sanction 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, well known as a literary device used in espionage fiction. The initiation of lethal force is in comparison to the use of lethal force in self-defense or the protection of life.


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 Billing Dearlove, former head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service MI6, testified in court in 2007–2008's Diana, Princess of Wales inquest that it does grant a licence to kill, subject to a "Class Seven authorisation" from the Foreign Secretary, but that there were no assassinations conducted under Dearlove's authority.[1] 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.[2]

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.

Use outside of the Bond series

The concept was parodied as the spy-world equivalent of a driving licence, in The Venture Bros. episode "Mid-Life Chrysalis" in which O.S.I. agent Brock Samson tries to use his licence to identify himself as an agent only to discover it expired six months ago, subsequently forcing him to take an exam in order to get it renewed. In the episode, it is treated as both an agents' ID as well as their official licence to kill.

In The Simpsons episode "Little Big Girl", Mayor Quimby offers Bart a licence to kill (when he meant a driver's licence) after he puts out a fire. The related series Futurama, set in the early 31st century, casually mentions licences to kill in the episode "Less Than Hero", suggesting they are readily available, though the applicant must specify bare-hands or with weapons. Hermes Conrad is uncertain which category best fits the use of piano wire. In the 2009 film "Black Dynamite", the titular character Black Dynamite, is shown having a licence to kill from the CIA.

In Splinter Cell, this concept is called Fifth Freedom, based on the Four Freedoms articulated by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as means to protect them when other means have been exhausted. In practical terms, all methods are acceptable: whether it to be kill any person, torture for information, deploy on U.S. soil, or spy on other government agencies.

Few presidents have ever granted the Fifth Freedom. It's the right to defend our laws, by breaking them. To safeguard secrets, by stealing them. To save lives, by taking them. To do whatever it takes to protect our country. The Fifth Freedom is mine alone. I am Sam Fisher. I am a Splinter Cell.

Sam Fisher in the "Official Fifth Freedom Trailer" for Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist.[3]

In some Indian films, there have been protagonists that played the role of Indian Research and Analysis Wing agents who were granted the licence to kill. An example would be the Indian Telugu movie Paisa Vasool.

See also


  1. English, Rebecca (21 February 2008). "Ex-MI6 chief admits agents do have a licence to kill but denies executing Diana". The Daily Mail. Retrieved 25 June 2013. Sir Richard Billing Dearlove, known as "C" when he headed MI6, told the Diana inquest the Secret Intelligence Service had the power to use "lethal force" ... they had to seek the written permission of the Foreign Secretary for a "Class Seven authorisation" ... Sir Richard confirmed that this included using "lethal force" ... "(Were there) any assassinations under your authority?", Mr Burnett asked. "No," he replied.
  2. "Real life James Bond - I never got the girl or the gadgets". Fox News. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  3. "Splinter Cell Blacklist - Official Fifth Freedom Trailer [North America]" via
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