By Matthew Conklin

Photo Credit: Karlyn Gorski

Covert action is a common feature of world politics. Whether it is interference in foreign elections, assassination, regime change, or whisper campaigns, governments have long used dirty tricks to shape international events in their favor.  

At a November 19 event at the University of Chicago, two scholars specializing in the history and politics of international covert action discussed their recently published books on these topics and answered questions from the audience.

The joint book event featured Austin Carson, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Rory Cormac, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Each addressed their respective books, the practical side of researching secrecy and intelligence, and recent events. The event was sponsored by the Center for International Social Science Research, Chicago Project on Security and Threats, and the Committee on International Relations.

In Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy (Oxford UP 2018), Cormac chronicles the history of British covert action from 1945 to the present. In particular, Cormac describes a distinctly “British Way” of covert action that is “reasonably cautious” and “motivated by a desire to keep hands clean.” Characteristic of the British Way is the fact that the British government has no official definition of covert action. Rather, Cormac conceptualizes covert action as “interference in the affairs of another state in an unacknowledged manner.”

The British Way features defensive measures and lower-risk tactics rather than offensive covert action. British leaders, Cormac recounted, have relied primarily on “counter” propaganda and other indirect means. Assassination “is not very gentlemanly.” British operations during the Cold War typically embraced deniability and reliance on local partners or recruiting CIA counterparts to take key roles, as in the 1953 Iranian coup. Throughout the twentieth century, Cormac writes in Disrupt and Deny, “Britain has long used covert action flexibly and pragmatically as a means of bypassing or masking constraints heralded by decline.”

Carson’s book, Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics (Princeton UP 2018), is “the first thorough exploration of the role of secrecy in war.” The inspiration for Secret Wars, Carson explained, came from discovering that much of the Korean air war was fought by skilled Soviet pilots flying in Chinese and North Korean marked aircraft. Moreover, U.S. leaders knew as much, as revealed in a trove of declassified American intelligence records released in 2010. The resulting collusion to stay silent, he recounted, allowed thousands of casualties without disclosing the Soviet’s role to the public. As Carson writes in the opening pages of Secret Wars, “the Cold War started hot.”

To explain this puzzle, Carson uses a war-as-theater metaphor. Adversarial states cooperate secretly on the “back stage” during war to manage public perceptions on the widely visible “front stage.” To perform limited war on the front stage requires secrecy to preserve the public image of a constrained conflict, “even when it’s the other side using covert interventions.” A shared interest – even among rivals like the United States and Soviet Union in the Korean War – for “controlling escalation dynamics during war” explains the value of covertness and a rival’s reaction of silence.

Researching the world of intelligence and covert action presents unique challenges, a topic Cormac and Carson both discussed. Both books make extensive use of declassified government documents. Cormac noted that whereas researchers of US intelligence agencies can access many records online or in person, MI6, Britain’s Foreign Intelligence Service, strictly classifies all of its historical records. As a result, Cormac’s research incorporated oral history interviews with former British intelligence officials in addition to his research at presidential libraries in the US.

Both authors noted the importance of persistence and plain old luck for research breakthroughs. Bureaucratic mistakes can result in more useful declassifications. Cormac described using parallel records to find references or documents that were more tightly held by other British intelligence organizations. Carson recounted finding an early signals intercept report from the National Security Agency which was in an official’s personal papers.

Audience questions raised other important topics such as weaponization of social media. Cormac noted that Disrupt and Deny demonstrates that covert information operations are nothing new. While the Soviets may have started it, both scholars argued that the Americans and British have been active participants in this game for decades. Put more bluntly, by taking Carson and Cormac’s books seriously, one may surmise that the alarmist rhetoric about Russian election interference is ahistorical and even hypocritical.

What is new about cyber-enabled social media campaigns, both agreed, is the democratized circulation of news stories and the use of microtargeting techniques to track the effectiveness of online disinformation. Much of the controversy over revelations about ties between Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign, for example, focused on the manipulative nature of these techniques. One promising topic for future research is the causes and consequences of governments’ reliance on private intelligence firms and other non-government organizations in the post-911 era.

Another audience question raised the issue of intelligence leaks on states’ abilities to conduct covert action. Cormac’s response distinguished between the two countries. An anti-government, civil-liberties tradition in the United States tends to lead to more critical public reactions to leaks. The British, he noted, are more ambivalent about government surveillance and often trust the value of covert action when exposed. Carson agreed and explained how leaks from Congressional committees are one informal way intelligence oversight in the United States can create accountability for covert action.

Researching secrecy and intelligence in world politics requires the analyst to step between the frontstage and the backstage. Studying each stage is as timely as it is important. The November 19 event and the new books by Carson and Cormac illustrate the growing potential for scholarship on such topics.