Rossa McPhillips takes a look at just how realistic James Bond is, from the eyes of someone who spent 10 years in British military intelligence.

‘Fisher fights like a madman until finally Bond forces his head into the basin, now overflowing with water.  James holds him under until the body stops writhing and kicking. Not a clean kill by any means’. (©Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis 2006)

Bond’s first kill, as depicted in the film Casino Royale (2006) is a brutish affair, echoing the more sadistic traits of the character from Ian Fleming’s books. Most people in the world have seen a James Bond film, and for those who haven’t, they’ve almost certainly heard of the character. Everyone is familiar with the franchise’s tropes – fast expensive cars, slick suits, dazzling gadgets and women who should know better.

But just how realistic is it?


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Fleming, when writing Bond, based the character on a number of swashbuckling eccentrics he encountered when at British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War. Adventurer-spies like Fitzroy Maclean who parachuted into German-held Yugoslavia to join up with the partisans to kill Nazis, and Duskov Popov, a womanizing playboy who was feeding the Nazis false information about the true location of the D-Day invasion.

But even during the Second World War, these colourful characters were the exception. Most intelligence personnel quietly beavered away under the radar, trying to recruit spies with access to military secrets, or played a vital role in deciphering the Enigma code.

It was in revolutionary Russia over a hundred years ago, after the fall of the Tsar in 1917 that the actions of British Secret Service personnel began to morph into what they are today. Stories of Bond-like derring-do of the MI6 men involved – Francis Cromie, who was gunned down in a shoot-out with Russian secret police and Sidney Reilly who actively plotted to overthrow the Bolsheviks – represented a service of mostly upper-class, ruthless mavericks.

But their intrigues were outright failures, used by the Russians to justify the slaughter of thousands of alleged ‘conspirators’ and thus woefully embarrassing for the government of the day. The ‘secret agent’ Reilly and Cromie had epitomised rapidly become an anachronism.

In the light of this, modern spying was outsourced to the employment of locals, traitors on the inside who could be persuaded or cajoled to pass information.  A demarcation line was laid down, differentiating MI6 ‘officers’, (MI6 employees), against their ‘agents’, (sources of information).

In addition, intelligence officers retreated to the background, their offices or ‘stations’ now located in the safe confines of British embassies, and MI6 officers would be assigned humdrum embassy jobs such as Passport Control Officer as cover. Covert action and derring-do was sidelined, with the sole purpose of MI6 was to recruit spies or agents in order to give government ministers inside information for the policies of the day.

MI6’s role today has not veered too much from this focus. MI6, called SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) by people in the know, has stations in countries all over the world and has become a very cautious place.

Officers mainly recruit, cultivate and protect agents or spies – who often put their own lives at risk in order to pass often crucial information.  MI6 officers also liaise with home nation intelligence services on matters of mutual interest. Contrary to what is reported in the press, MI6 officers do not kill people (at least not intentionally), do not interfere in democratic elections, and, unless posted to a war-zone like Syria, do not even carry weapons.

SIS officers have historically been taught by retired army sergeant majors how to use weapons during their initial training course, but there is no license to kill. It is worth noting that, at the time of writing, not a single MI6 career officer has been killed in action since the Second World War.

However, it is unwise to be too unequivocal in descriptions about this highly ambiguous industry. The advent of international terrorism since the 1970s, and even more so after the September 11 2001 attacks, has meant that MI6 has taken on the mantle of fighting terrorism around the world on behalf of the British government. Their purpose still remains to glean as much information from its spies as it can about terrorist tactics, terrorist leaders and future attacks, but, instead of using those agents to inform government policy, intelligence on terrorism is often used for a more ‘kinetic’ effect.

The film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) illustrates this point well. During the film it transpires that the CIA has intelligence, from a number of sources, about the whereabouts of wanted terrorist overlord Osama Bin Laden.  The CIA officers do not kill Bin Laden themselves, but pass this intelligence to the US Special Forces, who plan, rehearse and finally raid Bin Laden’s hideout and kill him.

In operations all over the world, MI6 has a similar close relationship with the UK Special Forces, such as the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS). It is UK Special Forces who actually kill Her Majesty’s enemies (although this normally also requires cabinet level authorisation).

For example, if MI6’s agent in ISIS gives his handlers the location of an ISIS base in Syria, MI6 will corroborate this information from other sources, such as email and telephone intercepts monitored by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) agency.

Once satisfied that the information is valuable, the details are passed to the SAS or SBS who will attack the ISIS hideout, kill ISIS targets residing there and destroy the base. Alternatively, MI6 could pass this information to the Royal Air Force (RAF) who could drop a bomb or launch a drone strike on the site – which is relatively risk free (and often preferred by Whitehall). It is worth emphasising that this procedure is purely for terrorist threats, and is not mirrored in the other aspects of MI6’s work.

Therefore, in terms of how Bond is portrayed, his actions are not those of an MI6 officer. His actions are more akin to those of the SAS. In most of James Bond films, Bond is essentially briefed by M about a target who he has to kill. The SAS is briefed in a similar way, but usually by Army Intelligence Corps (my unit), but it is true this briefing is very much based on intelligence gathered by MI6 and other agencies.

The SAS raid would usually be conducted by more than one person also, and could involve up to 50 SAS troopers.  At a minimum, SAS teams would deploy two to four people at a time, depending on the mission. So whilst Bond could be true in real life, he would be a military man working for UK Special Forces, not MI6, and he would almost certainly work as part of a well-trained team of troopers and not act alone.

That said, Bond has done the world of good for MI6 who has relentlessly exploited the myth to recruit new agents and sources. In addition, the agency can rely on recruiting high calibre employees because of their love for the Bond franchise, but those candidates who yearn for action, as opposed to the slow cultivation of an agent, are normally pointed in the direction of their local Army Careers Office. This Bond cult has also ensured Britain got invited to the top table of world affairs, even as its world power status dwindled just as the empire crumbled.

I am a great fan of the movies myself, as are many people in the intelligence services and military (as you can imagine). The wit, charm and excitement of the films is something I have enjoyed since I was a child.

The fact that I have been privileged to have a peep-hole into this secret world and see how far the gulf is between the truth and fiction in Bond’s world, makes me enjoy them even more – as it doesn’t feel like work, in contrast to how watching something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does. Bond is out there, literally punching above his weight, always defeating his enemy and coming out on top. Something that, sadly, eludes the UK intelligence community from time to time.

And as a writer myself, what would I be willing to do to get to write the next Bond film? I would probably kill for it.


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