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Elite Agents Above the Law

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Harris: Reread the Charter, Article 14, Section 31. There are a few lines that make allowances for bending the rules during times of extraordinary threat.
Capt. Jonathan Archer: What threat?
Harris: Take your pick. Earth's got a lot of enemies.

Anyone who gets recruited into an elite law enforcement/paramilitary/military agency does have a chain of command, ultimately being answerable to someone such as the head of the agency or the head of a department responsible for managing the agency itself.


But what if the agency itself doesn't answer itself to the relevant department/ministry head? Some of the reasons include Benevolent Conspiracy or an Ancient Order of Protectors who is only held accountable to the leader of a certain country, or even possibly to no one at all. This places them outside the nation-state's normal legal and accountability structure, which if the agents remain loyal, can make them more effective protectors than operators who have to answer to Obstructive Bureaucrats—or conversely, makes them more effective at maintaining a tyrant's grip on power than agents who can be sent to prison for abuse of power. If they don't, they may turn into Rogue Agents, or even a full-blown Renegade Splinter Faction that becomes a threat to the very government that spawned them.

They are usually a Covert Group, No Such Agency, or a Government Agency of Fiction. Compare a Privateer, who are not necessarily elite, but likewise "above the law" in that they are allowed to engage in maritime crimes like piracy and get away with it in their home country, as long as they only target the enemies and rivals of said country.


Compare / Contrast Screw the Rules, I Make Them! (when enforcers only think they are above the law). Often an example of Artistic License – Law and/or Artistic License – Politics if applied to agents ostensibly of a Real Life government (particularly modern liberal democracies), as the state's actual laws and structure may not permit such an agency to exist, at least on paper. May overlap with:



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    Anime and Manga 
  • The TSAB's Enforcers in the Lyrical Nanoha series exist outside of the Bureau's regular rank hierarchy and are accountable only to the highest echelons of the Navy and, hence, the Bureau leadership. While this has rarely been put in the spotlight, supplemental materials reveal that an Enforcer's personal authority is extremely high, allowing them to potentially overrule any regulation or order not coming from an Admiral or a higher position.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny, FAITH is an elite ZAFT unit that answers itself to the head of the ZAFT Supreme Council, who serves as the head of state for the PLANTs.

    Comic Books 
  • Being loyal to the original urban myth, the Men in Black is an obscure organization that goes beyond any laws to controls the world and stops any abnormal activity like extraterrestrials, demons, and even sects. Different from their adaptations, the original source doesn't work as the "world police" but closest as it gets to the MIB myth, shaping the world as they like and having no compassion to any witnesses (or maybe yes by recruiting them).
  • Star Wars: Legacy: The Galactic Empire's Imperial Knights are Force-users who answer directly to the Emperor. However, they use the light side (and dislike the term "gray Jedi" used for them by the Galactic Alliance's mainstream Jedi Order), and also have the responsibility of stopping the Emperor should he ever fall to the dark side.
  • In Young Justice, the All-Purpose Enforcement Squad (A.P.E.S.) has IDs belonging to every major law enforcement agency on the planet, including the FBI, the CIA, Interpol, and Scotland Yard. They're able to walk into an archaeological site and instantly declare it government property while having full clearance to kill anyone who gets in their way. As Agent Donald Fite puts it, "We have more clearance than God."

    Fan Works 
  • In the Resident Evil fanfiction The Progenitor Chronicles, President Kaldwin inherits the Division of Security Operations (DSO) and makes it her top-secret anti-Family task force, answering to her directly. Given the reveal in Resident Evil 6 that the Family had members throughout the entire world, including within major governments, having this sort of team outside the regular legal system is, at the least, prudent.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The main conflict of Captain America: Civil War is set off by this trope. With the collapse of SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers are now effectively an N.G.O. Superpower with no civilian oversight or accountability. As a consequence of the missions in Sokovia and Nigeria going pear-shaped and causing massive civilian casualties, the world's governments enact the Sokovia Accords in an attempt to bring the Avengers back under civilian control. Reaction from the Avengers themselves is mixed: the increasingly traumatized Tony "Iron Man" Stark is in favor, while Steve "Captain America" Rogers worries that the Avengers will be subordinated to political objectives over the broader goal of protecting the planet, and chooses to quit. It gets worse when the Accords signatories appoint Thaddeus Ross (infamous for hunting the Hulk) in charge of enforcing the Accords on the superheroes: his pursuit of Bucky "Winter Soldier" Barnes pushes Tony and Steve into open conflict.
  • The MIB in Men in Black was established by the government, but no longer answers to them. They don't even have a government budget, since they raise their own revenue by marketing alien technology. If any law enforcement officials give them trouble, they just zap them with the neuralyzer.
  • The Impossible Mission Force in the Mission: Impossible Film Series is a US agency that appears to answer only to a mysterious "Secretary". Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation even shows IMF officer William Brandt stonewalling a Congressional subcommittee on grounds that there currently is no Secretary who can permit him to discuss the group's missions—which apparently continue despite the present lack of a boss. Nope, not even the elected representatives of the people of the United States get to perform oversight of IMF if it doesn't want them to. Alan Hunley is given the job of Secretary at the end of the film.
  • Star Wars:
    • In most Star Wars media, including Star Wars Legends, the Jedi Order is portrayed as an N.G.O. Superpower of sorts: an independent paramilitary organization that is allied to the Republic, enforcing its laws and keeping the peace, but only really answers to its own Jedi Council. And in Revenge of the Sith, the Council really doesn't like it when the civilian government of the Republic tries to insert itself in what it sees as purely Jedi affairs. During the Clone Wars, the Military Creation Act changes this status by legally appointing Jedi assigned to the war effort as senior officers of the Grand Army of the Republic.
    • In the original trilogy, Darth Vader derives his authority in the Empire not from his official rank, but from his Master-Apprentice relationship with the Emperor. By default, this puts the Sith order above any Imperial body. He appears to defer to Grand Moff Tarkin out of respect in A New Hope, but it's doubtful that Tarkin could really do anything about it if Vader decided to ignore him or even challenge his command.
  • Swordfish: The mysterious, charismatic Gabriel Shear is revealed to be the head of a government ghost cell tasked with dishing out Disproportionate Retribution on terrorists and other threats to the United States, and has a massive arsenal and bank account to do it with. Even THIS turns out to not be enough for him, and he plots to rob the World Bank and go fully renegade, killing his only Senate handler along the way.

  • The Destroyer: CURE is a top-secret agency of the U.S. government which carries out assassinations and answers directly to the President. It consists of three people: its operatives Remo Williams and Chiun and the head of the agency, Harold Smith.
  • Hive Mind:
    • As one of only five true Telepaths, Amber is desperately needed to police a Hive city of a hundred million people. As such, she's showered in luxuries, given anything she wants no matter how troublesome, and is explicitly above the law. She takes advantage of this at the end of Telepath when she Mercy Kills Elden to save him from destruction analysis. In a later book, she muses that no one so much as took away her chocolate crunch cakes.
    • Hurricane reveals that Morton, another, older Telepath used to abuse his power, to the point of keeping a woman prisoner. It took another Telepath's intervention to free her and turn him into The Atoner.
  • Jack Ryan:
    • Clear and Present Danger refers to the explosive growth of Colombian narcotics trafficking within the United States, which President Bob Ritter deems a threat to national security. As such, he has his NSA man, James Cutter, cherrypick an elite team to conduct covert sabotage operations against the cocaine cartel. When actions escalate into an airstrike that obliterates one kingpin's compound (wives, mistresses, and children included), that's United States military killing foreign nationals on their home soil, which is an act of war. Once this indiscretion starts unraveling, the politicos leave their underlings to be killed or captured.
    • The Teeth Of The Tiger, Dead or Alive, Locked On, and Threat Vector revolve around a private counterterrorism hit squad called the Campus, secretly established by former President Jack Ryan. Ryan supplied the group with a stack of pre-signed presidential pardons to shield its operatives from prosecution. (Which is legally and politically nonsense: blanket pardons aren't allowed in US common law, and the President cannot pardon crimes prosecuted by foreign governments—several assassinations the Campus performs in the first book take place in London—or even US states. To say nothing of the Strawman Political stuff also involved.)
  • Lensman: The Gray Lensmen can go anywhere and do anything they consider necessary for their missions. They can take anything they think they need, with or without giving a reason, although they'll usually give a chit in return that the Patrol will honor. They can't be given orders, only requests and suggestions, as they are officially considered their own best judge of how they can best contribute to the defense of Civilization and the defeat of Boskone.
  • Section Nine in The Millennium Trilogy was powerful enough to make even several Prime Ministers let them do their thing. They were able to abusively institutionalise a witness (Lisbeth Salander) and even commit murder (Salachenko).
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Inquistorius, a division of Imperial Intelligence composed of Force-sensitive operatives. Their mission is to recruit or kill any latent Force-sensitives they can find, they answer only to Darth Vader himself, and they are allowed to requisition any Imperial resources they deem necessary for their task.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • Recurring character Mara Jade is a Force-sensitive who was trained by Emperor Palpatine to be an "Emperor's Hand", a spy and assassin answering directly to him. The Thrawn Trilogy and later-written prequels such as Allegiance give some indications as to the scope of her duties: in Dark Force Rising she tries (and fails) to Force-Choke Grand Admiral Thrawn after he betrays her, and implies that she was permitted to kill even Imperial military personnel more or less at will if she had a reason. Palpatine's death left her unemployed; she found work as a smuggler and gun for hire, and Luke Skywalker begins training her as a Jedi in The Last Command.
    • Discussed in the New Jedi Order novel Destiny's Way. Luke, by now the official Grandmaster of the Jedi Order, has a less-than-cordial encounter with a New Republic politician named Fyor Rodan, who wants to remove this trope from the Jedi. He seeks to make the Jedi Order a formal branch of the New Republic military, which among other things would make it possible to Court Martial Jedi Knights who fall to the dark side or otherwise go rogue. Luke prefers to keep the Order independent, feeling, as the Old Republic's Jedi did, that their purpose is to serve the Force rather than the political and military needs of the Republic.
  • This is Older Than Radio: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas provides a dual Ur-Example. King Louis XIII of France has the Musketeers among others as official guardians of France and her interests. However, Louis's laissez-faire attitude to rulership in the novel means France effectively has two heads of state, the second being Cardinal Richelieu, the head of the French Catholic Church. Richelieu also maintains a cadre of agents, most of which are covert, that answer only to him. Understandably, the King's Musketeers and the Cardinal's Guards have an intense Interservice Rivalry and routinely cross swords. Meanwhile, Femme Fatale Lady DeWinter is charged with disposing of the Duke of Buckingham, and she carries a writ that makes her untouchable by French authorities: "What the bearer of this deed has done, is by my command, and for the good of France. Richelieu" As Aramis comments upon reading it, "It is an absolution in all its forms."
  • Imperial Auditors from the Vorkosigan Saga, who are treated as The Emperor's proxy, granting them unlimited power over anyone who recognizes Barrayar's government.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agent X was a short-lived TV series following a special agent that follows pretty much all of the traits of this trope, except he is answerable only to the Vice President (in order to give the President plausible deniability), as designated by a secret section of the Constitution.
  • Babylon 5: PsiCorps theoretically works for the government of the Earth Alliance, with the job of putting telepaths to work while protecting the privacy rights of "mundanes". In practice, PsiCorps has become a rogue agency answering only to itself, experimenting on mundanes and telepaths alike and giving PsiCops the effective authority to kill anyone at will with little consequence. By Crusade, PsiCorps is overthrown by La Résistance and telepaths are brought into the Earth Alliance's normal legal structure.
  • Burn Notice: In "Lesser Evil", Victor theorizes this is how the burned spies organization got started: "Somebody runs an operation off the books. It's supposed to be a one-time thing but when it's over, there's power to be had. Takes on a life of its own."
  • in Doctor Who
  • The original Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) is probably the Trope Codifier for the secret agency format. The Impossible Mission Force's command structure is only vaguely defined due to the episodic nature of the series: all that we're ever told, Once an Episode, is that they answer to a mysterious Secretary, who will famously disavow all knowledge of the protagonists' actions if any are exposed.
  • Nikita: Division began life as a No Such Agency of the United States government, "recruiting" young people imprisoned for various offenses and faking their deaths before training them as operatives to operate entirely outside US and international law. However, agency chief Percy began using his records of Division's dirty deeds to blackmail his superiors into allowing him to turn the agency into an operation profiting him personally on the side.
  • Defied in the Stargate-verse. Despite the Secret Warfare nature of the stargate program and General Hammond having the President of the United States on speed dial, the SGC and related agencies such as NID are still very much subject to the normal US and eventually UN legal structures. There's repeated tangles with Congress over the budget (recurring antagonist Senator Kinsey originally gets read in because he was chairman of the Appropriations Committee at the time), and a couple of times, operators who went rogue end up with federal death sentences for offenses they legally aren't allowed to discuss because they happened on other planets.
  • Star Trek:
    • Section 31 is a super-secret Federation intelligence agency that isn't accountable to anyone at all. It draws its authority from the eponymous section of the Federation Charter, which voids other restrictions placed by the charter in times of "extraordinary threat". Section 31 also demonstrates some of the pitfalls of having such an agency: the lack of oversight leads to Section 31 going to increasing extremes to "safeguard the Federation", including using biological weapons to try to exterminate the Dominion's Founders and framing a Federation-friendly Romulan senator for treason in order to put one of their moles into a higher position. They're even said to have an operative in the Federation President's Cabinet—in a series where there has already been one attempted coup by a Well-Intentioned Extremist Starfleet officer.
    • Both the Romulan Tal Shiar and the Cardassian Obsidian Order may have started out as intelligence arms for their respective governments, but by the 24th century both had become so powerful that they could effectively run their governments simply by "disappearing" anyone who disagreed with them or framing them as disloyal to the state. The Dominion specifically targeted both organizations for annihilation prior to the Dominion War precisely because they considered both of them to be the greatest threat to the Dominion's takeover of the Alpha Quadrant. And then by the Star Trek: Picard we learn that there's an even deeper and more powerful cabal within the Tal Shiar called the Zhat Vash that scares even hardened Romulan operatives.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted: The All-Seeing Eye are the Realm's secret police, intelligence service, and, at need, assassins, tasked by the Scarlet Empress with overseeing the dealings of the Great Houses, the Realm's bureaucrats, merchant conglomerates and other powerful factions and ensuring that they do not threaten the stability of the realm. They ultimately answer only to the Empress and to the Sidereals secretly manipulating the Realm and exist entirely outside of its normal system of laws, politics, and regulations. The Empress' disappearance, however, has been a serious problem for them, as they now lack any overarching direction in their mission and no longer possess a sponsor to protect them against the retribution of the Houses.
  • GURPS: the Legal Enforcement Powers advantage at 15 points gives the character the ability to have widespread jurisdiction, violate the civil rights of others, freedom to start cover operations, and kill with relative impunity. It almost always comes with a Duty disadvantage requiring the character do something for the sponsor.
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Holy Orders of the Emperor's Inquisition. In addition to their totally unfettered powers of requisition (ranging from safehouses to entire fleets of starships), Inquisitors have no limits on their authority save what the Inquisition imposes on them, allowing them to do things (like summon daemons and traffick with aliens) that would get any other citizen burned alive. Finally, they are one of two groups (the other being the Emperor's Space Marines) empowered to enact Exterminatus if they deem it necessary (with the caveat that all but the highest-ranking Inquisitors can only request it: it has to be carried out by the Space Marines or the Imperial Navy). Inquisitors are answerable to other Inquisitors, with potential penalties for abuse of power including defrocking or even death, but the only office above them is that of the incapacitated God-Emperor of Mankind. So far the only other Imperial organization to successfully stand up to them has been the Space Wolves.

    Video Games 
  • The eponymous agency in Alpha Protocol operates like this. They (and their predecessors) are also subject to the short end of this trope, however: if they screw up, get exposed, or go rogue, the government will simply liquidate the operatives they can find and pretend the rest were Rogue Agents all along.
  • BlazBlue: The Zero Squadron (a.k.a. Wings of Justice) is an "unofficial" part of the NOL's army, who answers only to the Imperator. Their job is to watch the other members of the army and find anyone who might rebel and bring them to justice.
  • The Division: The Strategic Homeland Division, who are glamourous elites, and are given the authority to do "whatever is necessary" to restore order where they are deployed, including the "elimination" of all threats to their mission.
  • The Seekers of Truth in Dragon Age, which act as Internal Affairs to the Templar Order, nominally answer to the Divine, but in practice they kept so many secrets from her and the rest of the world that the Lord Seeker held all the real power. In the aftermath of the Battle of Kirkwall, Lord Seeker Lambert took offense at what he saw as the Divine being too "lenient" with the mages, even when her "leniency" amounted to expecting the Templars and Seekers to obey their own laws, and led the entire Seeker and Templar orders in rebelling against the Chantry and marking the official start of the Mage-Templar war.
  • Final Fantasy XIV plays with this all to hell, usually to the tune of subversion.
    • The Scions of the Seventh Dawn start out seeming to be this, in service to all nations but beholden to none. But, they don't work to undermine the laws of any nation they are allied with (and even ones they nominally aren't, except in the case of Garlemald since they're directly opposing them). They often are called upon by their friends to act in this capacity but only on a limited basis and as a deniable asset.
    • The Crystal Braves were intended to be this as well - a group that wasn't beholden to one of the three allied nations, that could take more direct action in rooting out Garlean spies. However, they end up betraying the Scions and the other nations, along with corrupt elements within Ul'Dah. Ironically, their efforts to fully realize this trope limit their actual influence, as Limsa Lominsa and Gridania's respective leaders don't trust that the hero of the realm and their allies would truly become the danger they're presented as and work to remove the Braves and their allies from positions of power and trust, while also convincing them that they can't overtly go after the PC until they provide proof that they were actually responsible - allowing you to walk around the three nations as if nothing is going on.
    • The Heaven's Ward probably plays this straight more than any other group. The order is nominally part of the Temple Knights, but have extreme latitude in their actions. They report directly to the Archbishop, and as such though their actions are not utterly unquestionable, it takes a VERY rare breed to even consider challenging them. The only time their leader reins them in occurs early in the story, when one of their members has two allies of the PC arrested - and this is after the PC has trounced him in a duel and proven worthy to the Archbishop of being a pawn in his schemes.
    • On the positive side, there's the Rogue's Guild of Limsa Lominsa, a secret police of former pirates endorsed covertly by the Admiral who work to uphold the Code - an unwritten set of rules governing "legitimate" crime in Limsa and La Noscea, including the remnants of piracy. They don't protect criminals from the actual law enforcement overtly if they get caught, but do help facilitate any business that falls under the Code - as well as police those who break it.
  • Council Spectres from Mass Effect, operatives with a vague mandate to "preserve peace and stability in the galaxy," are only answerable to the Council itself, which takes pains to not inquire too deeply into what they do and how they do it. Unlike other examples of this trope, they are not provided with any particular resources by their employers, but since they can do anything they like without legal repercussion, they're free to cut deals, steal, and even raise private armies to accomplish their missions. The ethics of this are discussed in Mass Effect: Da Chief of Citadel Security criticizes the Spectres' lack of accountability, and the main plot of the game involves Commander Shepard hunting down a Spectre who has gone rogue, blundering into his plot to summon the Reapers and bring on The End of the World as We Know It as a result.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: The Sith Warrior class story sees the PC named the "Emperor's Wrath", a title making them the personal enforcer and executioner of Sith Emperor Vitiate (at least in theory: nobody has in fact seen Vitiate for years, because he's preparing to conquer the galaxy at the head of the Eternal Empire). This makes them autonomous from the Dark Council, which normally de facto rules the Sith Empire and especially the Sith religious order on a day-to-day basis.
  • In the X-COM series, you have permission to operate in more-or-less any country. So long as you do a good job of fighting off the alien forces, none of the funding nations will withdraw support. You can be given requests by these funding nations, but are not obligated to complete them. The penalty for failing (or simply not attempting) the requests is typically minimal.

    Western Animation 
  • In Justice League, Project CADMUS are portrayed this way, as being an off-the-books cabal of people with serious bones to pick with the Justice League all coming together to act as the government's response if the Justice League go rogue, and they answer only to the US President.

    Real Life 
  • Tsarist Russia:
    • In the 16th century, the Oprichnina were both bodyguard and enforcers for none other than Ivan the Terrible. Operating under his direct and unquestionable command, they scoured Russia for his enemies (or people he just didn't like or looked at him funny). However, they only lasted seven years: after they failed to defend Moscow against the Tartars (terrorizing helpless citizens isn't the same as being actual soldiers, after all), Ivan purged and then disbanded them.
    • In the 19th century, the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery was powerful enough to quash court rulings.
  • You have the various Republican and Presidential Guard units. Usually military or paramilitary in nature, their job is to protect top officials, including the heads of state and his/her immediate family and sensitive installations. They are usually answerable to the head of state for security/reliability reasons.


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