Tag Archives: assassination

The Assassination of the Archduke – Sue Woolmans

I recently attended an Edinburgh Book Festival presentation by Sue Woolmans about a book that she has written along with Greg King, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder that Changed the World. The publisher describes the book as follows:

In The Assassination of the Archduke, Greg King and Sue Woolmans offer readers a vivid account of the lives – and cruel deaths – of Franz Ferdinand and his beloved Sophie. Combining royal biography, romance, and political assassination, the story unfolds against a backdrop of glittering privilege and an Imperial Court consumed with hatred, taking readers from Bohemian castles to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in a compelling, fascinating human drama. As moving as the fabled romance of Nicholas and Alexandra, as dramatic as Mayerling, Sarajevo resonates with love and loss, triumph and tragedy in a vibrant and powerful narrative. It lays bare the lethal circumstances surrounding that fateful Sunday morning in 1914, examining not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.

Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, insisted on marrying for love, His wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, although an aristocrat, was too low down the social scale to normally be allowed to marry a member of the Imperial House of Habsburg. He was permitted to marry her by Emperor Franz Josef on condition that the marriage was morganatic, meaning that she could not share her husband’s title, rank or privileges and their children could not inherit the Imperial throne.

Rather than go through the whole story, I will concentrate on what she described as  myths and misconceptions that she was keen to dispel.

Sophie was a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella, who was keen that Franz Ferdinand should marry one of her daughters. He was a frequent visitor to the household of Isabella and her husband, Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen.

Woolmans said that it  is frequently asserted that Isabella assumed that Franz Ferdinand was interested in marrying one of her daughters and was furious when she discovered that it was Sophie that he wanted to marry. Woolmans argues that Isabella must have noticed Franz Ferdinand’s interest in Sophie and believes that she was so keen to have one of her daughters as Empress that she would have tolerated him taking Sophie as his mistress. However, Sophie and Franz Ferdinand, who were both very religious, would have refused to accept this on moral grounds.

Woolmans thinks that Franz Ferdinand intended to wait until he was Emperor before marrying Sophie. She would then have become Empress. However, Isabella forced his hand, in Woolmans’s opinion in the hope that he would marry one of her daughters, leading to the morganatic marriage.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were not naïve in visiting Sarajevo, being well were aware that they risked assassination by going there. Just before going there, he told Archduke Karl, the next in line to the throne, that he might be shot and where to find his plans for a United States of Austria. This was intended to give the Slavs more power in the multi-national empire. Woolmans suggests that one reason why Sophie insisted on accompanying her husband to Sarajevo was that in those days assassins sometimes hesitated if there was a risk that they might harm women or children.

The day of the assassination, 28 June, was not, as is often claimed, their wedding anniversary, but the anniversary of the  on which Franz Ferdinand signed the official papers stating that the marriage would be morganatic.

Gavrilo Princep, their assassin, was not eating a sandwich in Schiller’s Delicatessen, but standing outside it when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s car appeared in front of him. He could not have afforded to have bought a sandwich from a café; Woolmans believes that this story was made up by a TV dramatization of the assassination.

Sophie was not pregnant at the time of her death. She was then 46 and her last pregnancy in 1908 had produced a still born child.

Killing any Austrian leader might have satisfied the assassins, but may not have led to war. In previous crises, Franz Ferdinand was the man who urged caution.

Woolmans said that a meeting between Franz Ferdinand and his friend Kaiser Wilhelm in June 1914 was mainly a social event at which Franz Ferdinand, a keen horticulturist, showed off his garden to Wilhelm. It was not a war council, although there were some political discussions.

The presentation did  not cover the claim in the publisher’s blurb that it examines ‘not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.’

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Month of Madness – BBC Radio 4

BBC radio has just broadcast a series of five 15 minute episodes about the Month of Madness that led to the First World War. It was presented and written by Professor Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, an acclaimed history of the causes of the war.

The programme is available on the BBC i Player from this link. Unlike TV ones, radio programmes appear to remain available indefinitely, and I do not think that there are any geographical restrictions on listening to them.

Episode one, Sarajevo

This covered the impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife by Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was a moderate reformer who wanted to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a United States of Greater Austria, consisting of 15 or 16 federal districts, each dominated by a different ethnic group: the Empire had 11 official nationalities. Clark argues that he was assassinated because he was a moderate: extremists fear moderate opponents more than hardliners, because moderates offer the possibility of peaceful change.

The assassination succeeded by luck. An attempt earlier in the day failed, other assassins lost their nerve and Princep got his chance only because Franz Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn.

Serbian nationalists wanted to incorporate Bosnia-Herzegovnia into a Greater Serbia because Serbs were the largest of its national groups, although at 43% they were still a minority. Princep and his fellow Bosnian Serb assassins were ‘abstinent’ young men, with little time for alcohol or women. Clark notes that they were the type of ‘sombre’ young men who join terrorist groups today.

The killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist meant that Austria-Hungary would take action against Serbia. However, whether a Balkan conflict became a European war depended on the decisions taken by other countries in the next few weeks.

Episode 2, Vienna

This explores how the Austro-Hungarians reacted to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. There was widespread shock; as with the assassination of JFK, people were able to remember years afterwards where they were when they learnt the news. Emperor Franz Josef did not get on well with his heir, but it is a myth that he received the news coldly. Eye witnesses stated that he was clearly upset.

The assassins were trained and equipped in Serbia, with backing from the Black Hand, a shadowy network whose objectives included the liberation of Bosnian Serbs from Austrian rule. It was headed by Dragutin Dimitrijević, also known as Apis, the head of Serbian Military Intelligence. The civilian Serbian government was unable to act against the members of the Black Hand because they were too well connected.

A consensus emerged quickly in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and General Staff that action must be taken against Serbia. As a minimum a very harsh ultimatum should be sent, but most wanted a war that would settle their issues with Serbia.

Two days after the assassination Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, told Emperor Franz Josef, that Austria-Hungary could no longer be patient with Serbia. The Emperor agreed. In previous Balkan crises Franz Ferdinand had urged caution, but nobody did so now that he was dead.

Clark says that the ultimatum prepared by Berchtold was a very firm one. He thinks that it can be questioned whether it was really completely unacceptable to a sovereign country, but the Austro-Hungarians certainly intended it to be rejected. They wanted ‘war on a neighbour that they saw as as impossibly turbulent and provocative.’

The Austro-Hungarians concentrated almost all of their attention on Serbia. They had no exit strategy, did not have clear objectives for their action, did not consider the risks involved and were not prepared for the major war that followed. They did realise that they needed support from their ally Germany, since Russia might come to the aid of Serbia.

Episode 3, Berlin.

This discusses Germany’s blank cheque to Austria-Hungary for war against Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm II got on well with Franz Ferdinand and agreed with him on many issues. Until now, the Germans had been urging the Austro-Hungarians to try to find peaceful solutions to their difficulties with Serbia; this now changed.

On 5 July the Austro-Hungarian ambassador presented letters from Franz Josef and his foreign minister to the Kaiser. The Kaiser and his general staff realised that Austro-Hungarians wanted war with Serbia, and promised to support whatever Austria-Hungary did, the so-called blank cheque. This came without conditions, so Germany was agreeing to support Austria-Hungary even if Russia intervened. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador told his government that the Kaiser thought Austria-Hungary should not delay if it wanted military action against Serbia.

The Germans did not think at this stage that Russia would intervene against Austria-Hungary, but knew that there was a risk that it would. If Germany stood by its ally, Russia’s ally France would join what would then be a continental war. The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg said that if Germany advised Austria-Hungary to act, it would say that Germany pushed it into war. If Germany urged caution, Austria-Hungary would claim that it had been abandoned and Germany would lose its only reliable ally.

Russian military power was also growing. It and France had one million more soldiers that Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914. Russia had embarked upon a massive rearmament programme, which was financed by France, but it would take time to complete. Germany and Austria-Hungary might win a war now, but not one in three years time.

However, the Germans thought that the Russian would not go to war. Tsar Nicholas II would surely not support regicide, Russia had no formal alliance with Serbia and why would Russia go to war now when it would be much stronger in three years time.

The Germans stuck to a policy of localisation. Nothing should be done that would escalate the crisis. Political and military officials, including the Kaiser went on holiday. When he returned on 27 July, he said that the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian note meant that a war was now unnecessary. He now urged peace, something that did not surprise his critics in the German army, who regarded him as somebody who talked aggressively but would argue for peace in the end.

Clark argues that the failure of the Kaiser’s last minute attempt to prevent a war shows that he was not as powerful as many have claimed. The Germans did not have a plan for continental war, but were willing to risk one, something in which they were not alone.

Episode 4, The French in St Petersburg 

This looks at the dangerous impact of the extension of the Franco-Russian alliance. By chance, Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was on long planned state visit to France’s ally Russia for much of the crisis, arriving on 20 July. The minutes of the summit have been lost, but the meetings can be reconstructed from the notes and diaries of those present, including Count Louis de Robien, a young French diplomat. He was appalled by the bellicose tone of the meetings. On his return to France on 28 July, Poincaré was greeted as if the country was already at war.

The France and Russia had been allied since the early 1890s, but both had urged caution on the other until the beginning of 1912. Poincaré then assured Russia that France would support it if it took action against Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, even if Russia was not itself threatened with attack. The French were becoming concerned that they could not rely on British help, so felt that they had to remain close to Russia. This was a defensive strategy, with the object of never having to fight Germany alone, but it carried serious risks.

Russia had no serious conflicts of interest with Germany, but Austria-Hungary was a long-standing rival of Russia in the Balkans, which were becoming more important in Russian thinking because of their proximity to the Turkish Straits. All sea traffic to and from the Black Sea had to pass through them, including 80% of Russia’s grain exports, a vital source of revenue. Russian nationalists also felt close to other Orthodox and Slavic nations, such as Serbia.

This encouraged Serbian leaders to believe that they could afford to have poor relations with Austria-Hungary, because Russia would support Serbia in a conflict. Clark does not believe that France and Russia wanted or planned a war, but they increased the risk of one by linking their strategy to the uncertain Balkan situation.

During the Franc0-Russian summit Poincaré urged Russia to be firm; Clark says this was ‘enthusiastically received.’ Poincare’s policy of closer relations with Russia ensured that France would not have to fight Germany alone, but made the situation more complex. The French had to assure the Russians of their support, but also had to make certain that the British did not think that France was escalating the crisis.

By the end of July it was difficult to see how a war could be avoided, but the question of whether or not Britain would enter it remained. Both France and Germany acted cautiously, the former hoping that Britain would support it, the latter that Britain would remain neutral. Neither considered backing down or putting peace ahead of prestige. De Robain said that both sides had determined to ‘hold firm…in a tragic poker game.’

Episode 5, London

This explores how British decision-makers reacted in the July Crisis of 1914. Britain was more concerned by the threat of civil war in Ireland, where the Protestant Unionists of the north opposed the government’s intention to grant the Catholic Nationalists of the south demand for Home Rule.

The key player was the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Although a Liberal MP, he favoured what Clark calls ‘a secretive, even conspiratorial’ way of operating, believing that foreign policy was too important to be decided by Parliamentary debates. He knew little of foreign countries, spoke no foreign languages and felt uncomfortable in the company of foreigners.

For much of the crisis the British did not consider the possibility that they might be drawn into war. Grey did not raise it in Cabinet until 24 July. Over recent years he had allowed the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France to deepen into something close to a strategic partnership, but the majority of the Cabinet strongly opposed any binding commitment to France, and thus Russia. The French wanted the Entente to be a British commitment to stand by France, but for Grey it had to be a looser agreement that did not bind Britain, which did not know the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance.

On 3 August Grey justified British entry into the war on three grounds: the moral obligations resulting from the Anglo-French friendship, especially the strategic partnership between the two navies; if Germany won, Britain would face a Continent dominated by one power, whilst a Franco-Russian victory would mean a Russian threat to Britain’s Asian empire; and the German breach of Belgian neutrality.

Clark says that the German invasion of Belgium was:

‘a gross offense against international law which endowed the Entente war effort with a lasting sense of moral superiority, but it was not the true reason for British intervention…the decision was made on a cool calculation of national interest.’

However, public anger over the invasion of Belgium helped to win support for the declaration of war.

Clark’s conclusions was that the men who made the decisions ‘were walking in watchful steps’ towards war. There was an ‘intricate structure of..interlocking commitments’, which became mixed up with ‘the volatile politics of a region inflamed by repeated conflict.’ There was an atmosphere of distrust and provocation. No one power was to blame for a war that resulted from ‘a shared European political culture.’

A very interesting a thought provoking programme. Clark does not attempt to blame any one country or alliance for the war. I have just started reading his book, where he says that he is more interested in question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ the war began.

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The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers is a documentary film about Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, made by Dror Moreh. It consisted of interviews with the six living former heads of Shin Bet, interspersed with archive film and some CGI graphics, and told the organisation’s story since 1967. Until then the main threats to Israel were external, so Mossad, the foreign intelligence service was more important than Shin Bet.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 6 Day War in 1967 meant that it faced a security threat from territory that it controlled, so Shin Bet became the more important of the two intelligence services.

The film is divided into seven segments, which give it a roughly chronological order, but also discuss various themes and moral issues that have arisen since 1967, including political direction, torture, targeted assassinations and collateral damage.

The six participants are Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Avi Dichter and  Yuval Diskin.

The seven segments are:

No Strategy, Just Tactics:

This covers the initial stages of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had no strategy for the future of the occupied territories; everything revolved round short-term tactics aimed at reducing terrorism.

These succeeded in cutting the number of attacks hugely, but did nothing to produce a long-term solution, although some Israelis, including Avraham Shalom, wanted a Palestinian state even then.

In order to carry out a census of the occupied territories, Israeli soldiers were taught a small number of relevant Arabic phrases, including ‘We want to count you.’ Unfortunately, a pronunciation error mean that many Israelis actually said that ‘We want to castrate you.’ Shin Bet subsequently set up a very rigorous programme of Arabic lessons for its personnel.

Forget About Morality:

This deals with the hijacking of the 300 bus in 1984. The four hijackers were killed, but it subsequently emerged that two had been captured alive, badly beaten and then killed. The film attributed this to the Israeli Army, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published documents that blame Shalom and Shin Bet.

One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter:

This covers the peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO that culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Opposition to them in both Palestine and Israel resulted in the growth of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and terrorist acts by Israelis.

Our Own Flesh and Blood:

This dealt with terrorism by Israelis who opposed the Oslo Accords. Shin Bet investigations resulted in the arrest and conviction of many of them, but most were released after serving only part of their sentences. On 4 November 1995  Israeli Prime Minister Yithak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an Israeli.

Victory is to See You Suffer:

The title of this segment comes from a comment made by a Palestinian to Ami Ayalon during Israeli-Palestinian talks during the Second Intifada. It means that the Palestinians would regard it as a victory if they could make life for the Israelis as bad as it was for themselves.

Collateral Damage:

This covered the targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and the risk that innocent civilians would also be killed. At one point Shin Bet discovered that the senior command of Hamas would be meeting in a particular building. The Israeli Air Force could have dropped a one ton bomb on it, killing all of them, but also some innocent civilians. The politicians insisted that only a quarter ton bomb should be dropped. This reduced the risk of killing innocents, but meant that the Hamas leaders would be killed only if they were in the upper floor of the two storey building; they were not and survived.

The Old Man at the End of the Corridor:

This came from a belief held by Ami Ayalon when he was a child on a kibbutz that Israel was run by a wise man (David Ben-Gurion) who sat in an office behind at the end of a long corridor and made decisions after thinking things through carefully. When he entered the government, he found the corridor, but there was no door at the end of it.

In this segment the six men reflected on Shin Bet, its activities and the implications for Israel. They all thought that it was necessary for Israel to talk to its enemies, and did not seem to have been impressed by the politicians that they had worked for, apart from Rabin; he was described as understanding security issues so well that they did not have to be explained to him.

A fear was expressed that Israel may end up winning all the battles but losing the war because of stubbornness. The occupation has embittered the occupied and brutalised the occupiers. Avraham Shalom suggested that Israel is treating the Palestinians as the Germans treated the non-Jewish subjects of the countries that they occupied in WWII.

A very powerful film. All six men came across well, speaking openly and honestly. They were aware of the problems that Israel’s actions had created, and feared that its strategy was flawed, but had been in positions where they could only carry out the strategy laid down from above.

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British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval Assassinated 200 Years Ago

Today is the 200th anniversary of the only assassination of a British Prime Minister. Spencer Perceval was shot dead by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval held mostly conservative views, although he had backed the abolition of the slave trade, and Britain was then at war with Napoleonic France.

If Churchill had been assassinated in 1942 or Lloyd George in 1917, then it would be seen as one of the most important events in British, if not world, history. Perceval died during a major war but if he is remembered it is for the manner of his death rather than for anything that he did during his life.

The Prime Minister then was first amongst equals in the cabinet rather than the more presidential style that has subsequently developed. The government declared war, financed the army and navy, appointed senior officers and made peace, but the slow communications of the day meant that it could interfere less in how generals and admirals fought their campaigns.

Perceval born on 1 November 1762 and was the second son of the second marriage of the Earl of Egmont. He worked as a barrister because he lacked private means, but he did have significant family connections, which boosted his career. He was elected an MP in 1796, proving to be an outstanding debater. His first government offices were legal ones such as Solicitor-General and Attorney-General, and his first purely political appoitment was as Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1807. He retained this role when he became Prime Minister in October 1809.

Perceval was a conservative evangelical Christian and disapproved of gambling, drunkenness, hunting and adultery. He opposed parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation but supported the abolition of the slave trade and the regulation of child labour. He was a close supporter of William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1781-1801 and 1804-6. Like Pitt, he was determined to continue the war with France, and he was an eloquent supporter of this view in the House of Commons.

It was feared that the assassination might be the start of a popular uprising, but this did not happen. It was accepted at the time and subsequently that Bellingham had a grudge against the government, which he blamed for the failure of his business, and acted alone. His plea of insanity was rejected and he was executed on 18 May.

A new book, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die by Andro Linklater, argues that Perceval’s death was part of a conspiracy. It was only published yesterday so I cannot comment on it. Its description from Amazon.co.uk says that:

On 11 May 1812 Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister, was fatally shot at close range in the lobby of the House of Commons. In the confused aftermath, his assailant, John Bellingham, made no effort to escape. A week later, before his motives could be examined, he was tried and hanged. Here, for the first time, the historian Andro Linklater looks past the conventional image of Bellingham as a ‘deranged businessman’ and portrays him as an individual, driven by the anxieties of his family life, by his yearning for respectability and by the raw emotions that convulsed his home town of Liverpool. But as the evidence accumulates, a wider, darker picture emerges. The wildly unpopular Perceval dominated political life as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He, above all, was responsible for oppressing Luddite protestors, for Britain’s naval blockade of Napoleonic France, for risking war with the United States. And, almost single-handedly, he was crushing Liverpool’s illegal slave-trade. John Bellingham was not alone in hating the prime minister. But did he act alone when he shot Spencer Perceval? And if not, who aided him? Two hundred years later, Andro Linklater examines Bellingham’s personal records, his wife’s letters and the reports of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first detective agency, uncovering strange payments made to the murderer and an untouched historical trail. Catching the threads of conspiracy amid the fevered tone of an age of intense debate over slavery, security of the state and personal liberty, Linklater brilliantly deconstructs the assassination of Spencer Perceval – the only British Prime Minister ever to have suffered that fate – to offer a fresh perspective on Britain and the Western world at a critical moment in history.

A recent article by Bruce Anderson in the Daily Telegraph dismissed Linklater’s arguments on the basis that there was no evidence to support them. He went on to claim that Perceval had been poorly treated by history.

Anderson argues that Perceval was popular with everybody who knew him. Possibly Linklater’s claim that he was unpopular means with the general public. He held the government together and ensured that the war was financed without ruining the economy. He ignored criticism of the cost of the campaign and the lack of victories and backed Wellington. Perceval proved to be correct, but he was dead and Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister by the time that the campaign in Spain and Portugal and the war with France were won.

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Modern Spies Part 2- BBC2

The second and final episode of Modern Spies  was broadcast by BBC TV on Monday 9 April. It was presented by Peter Taylor, a BBC journalist who specialised in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and has reported widely on al-Qaeda since 9/11. It discussed the lengths to which the intelligences services are prepared to go in the fight against terror and asked whether or not British intelligence officers have a licence to kill. Click here for my blog on the first episode.

As in the first episode, Taylor interviewed serving British intelligence officers. They were identified by only their first names,  their faces were obscured and actors spoke their words, so we have to take their word and that of the BBC that they were who they claimed to be. Given Peter Taylor’s reputation, I would be surprised if they were not genuine. There were also open interviews with former senior British police officers and Israeli intelligence officers, current and former CIA and FBI officials and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary.

It was claimed that there are about 2,000 al-Qaeda inspired terror suspects in the UK. In 2010 MI5 carried out extensive surveillance on a group suspected of planning attacks on major targets in London, including placing bugs in suspect’s homes. The MI5 and police officers interviewed said that everything they did was proportionate and legal, and that they were accountable to a high level of government. The evidence gathered was so convincing that the nine accused pleaded guilty and were given long prison sentences.

Security services make use of ‘sting’ operations, where undercover officers pretend to be able to supply suspected terrorists with the weapons and equipment needed to carry out their operation. There is a risk that these cross the line into entrapment, where the undercover officers entice the suspects into attempting to carry out an act of terror.

A British ‘sting’ operation against the Real IRA came close to entrapment, with the result that only one of the two suspects was convicted. This was blamed on the undercover agent not being trained by MI5; he was recruited specially for this operation, because MI5 did not have an agent with what was described as the ‘right face’ for the mission.

The US uses undercover agents more aggressively than Britain does. This was claimed to risk claims of entrapment. An operation, again carried out by outsiders brought in specially for this mission was described.  The Albanian-American Muslim Duka family took a film of themselves firing automatic weapons, whilst shouting Allah Akbar and Jihad, to a shop for conversion into a DVD. The film company informed the FBI which, lacking suitable agents, recruited two Albanian-Americans to penetrate the group.

Six men, including three Duka brothers, were convicted of buying weapons as part of a plan to attack the US military base at Fort Dix. There appeared little doubt that they had done so; the issue was that the FBI undercover agents may have proposed the operation and thus been guilty of entrapment. One of the undercover agents was paid $240,000 and the other received $150,000 and had deportation proceedings against him dropped.

The  question of whether or not British intelligence officers have a James Bond style licence to kill was discussed. The interviewees were adamant that they do not, and the programme then moved on to other intelligence services that have used assassination.

Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, has admitted that it hunted down and killed the Palestinians responsible for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; it argues that its motive was to prevent future attacks, rather than revenge. A fictionalised version of this story was told in the film Munich.

A team of up to 20 Mossad agents is believed to have assassinated Mahmoud al Mabhouh of Hamas in Dubai in 2010. The programme showed hotel CCTV footage of the agents, who were out of the country by the time that al Mabhouh had been found dead in his hotel room. Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service, has also killed Palestinians.

The USA has killed a large number of al-Qaeda leaders in drone attacks. A total of 3,000 people have died in these, including innocent bystanders. Britain also uses drones. US Navy Seals assassinated Osama Bin Laden last year.

One awkward revelation for the British intelligence services was that Britain co-operated in the extraordinary rendition of the Libyan opposition leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj  to Libya in 2004. Belhaj was then the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which MI6 feared was close to al-Qaeda. He is now a senior military commander in the new Libya, which Britain helped to create.

This came to light when Libyan intelligence files were discovered after the headquarters of Libyan intelligence were bombed last year. Britain has always denied any involvement in torture, but Belhaj says that he was tortured during his captivity.

This was a very interesting series. To some extent, we were told only what the intelligence services wanted us to hear, but it had unprecedented access. It was noticeable that criticisms had to made tangentially, by talking about things that the Americans and Israelis had done, and which Britain might also have done.

It is available for UK viewers on the I-Player until 12:19am on 20 April. No co-producers, so I do not know if it will be shown in other countries.

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