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The best books on Covert Action

recommended by Rory Cormac

Interview by Sophie Roell

Many of us live in democracies and believe in government transparency, but the truth is our leaders have considerable scope to engage in secret operations overseas. Rory Cormac talks us through five books on 'covert action,' and some of the countries that have embraced it as a policy tool.

Rory Cormac

Rory Cormac is an Associate Professor of International Relations specialising in Secret Intelligence, Covert Action, and National Security. Between 2015 and 2017, he held an AHRC Fellowship examining British approaches to covert action, 1945-1968. Rory is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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Your book, Disrupt and Deny, is about how British leaders use spies and special forces to interfere in other countries. Given that this is ‘covert action’ and we’re not supposed to know about it, how much is going on in the world at the moment? And who is doing it other than Britain?

There’s loads going on at the moment. Covert action is surprisingly big news at the moment given that, as you say, it’s supposed to be secret. We’re all talking about so-called ‘fake news’ and allegations of the Russians covertly interfering in the Brexit referendum, in various European elections and, most notoriously, in the American presidential election of 2016. It’s taking up a lot of column inches and yet it’s supposed to be secret, which is an interesting paradox in itself.

But covert action is, of course, nothing new. It is most associated with the CIA and the Soviets and the KGB in the Cold War and various paramilitary coups around Latin America. What my book is trying to do is to show that Britain also has a very long track record of covertly interfering in the affairs of other states—trying to shape the future of various states in a deniable or unacknowledged manner—which raises all sorts of issues around accountability, oversight, and ethics.

Is covert action a good thing or a bad thing?

It can be a good thing. It depends how it’s used. It’s very risky. If the covert action is clearly defined, has manageable objectives, and is used in support of an openly declared policy, then it can be a useful tool to get something done quickly and quietly. If, however, it is misused—which it often is—then it can be absolutely catastrophic and lead to political controversy and worse: death.

What would you say is the most disastrous example of covert action?

One of the most famous examples that people point to is the disastrous operation in Albania in the early Cold War, when Britain and America sought to liberate Albania from the Soviet bloc in 1949–1950. This was the first major covert action of the Cold War. It was hopefully, from the British and American perspective, going to be a test case that would demonstrate success and create a pathway to liberate all of the Soviet satellite states, and roll back the Soviets.

But it went horribly, horribly wrong, for many reasons. Most people point to the notorious treachery of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole inside MI6, for leaking the operation. But that was only one small part of what went wrong. There was appalling planning—not realising how good the Albanian intelligence services were. The agents used by the CIA and MI6 were factional, loose lipped, and very, very leaky. Ultimately, despite these grand ambitions, the agents were infiltrated from Malta into Albania in 1949–50 and were quickly rounded up. Some fled across the border to Greece, but many were, sadly, killed. It has gone down as the most calamitous covert action of the last hundred years.

As you say, we’ve heard a lot about the CIA but the British story is less well known. In Britain, who is actually carrying out the covert action?

In Britain, it’s normally MI6. But it’s slightly more fluid than in America, where the CIA dominates covert action. MI6 takes a lead role, but we’ve also seen British Special Forces doing the more paramilitary activities, we’ve seen the British Foreign Office doing some propaganda and information activities and, more recently, we’ve seen GCHQ doing online-type activities.

Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen to find out more. The first one on your list is Covert Action by Gregory Treverton, which focuses on the US. Tell me about this book and why it’s on the list.

It’s on the list because it’s probably the first serious book on covert action. It’s from 1987 but it’s a classic and holds up really well. It offers a really useful insight that was relevant in the 1980s but is also very relevant to understanding the unacknowledged interventionism that we see all around us today. Treverton worked on the Church Committee in the 1970s, which was the big congressional enquiry into CIA excesses. A lot of the book draws upon his work looking at American covert action in Chile during the 1970s. Some of the operations included providing funds for various electoral candidates, fiddling the elections, and providing anti-Allende propaganda campaigns.

I think Treverton’s take is really interesting and really important. He’s quite critical. He says that covert action is a tool and it must be used very cautiously if you’re going to use it at all. That is an important lesson which many policymakers today could heed. He comes up with what he calls the ‘New York Times test’. He says that this is absolutely paramount when deciding whether to engage in covert action and it’s simply: if the operation leaks and ends up on the front of the page of the New York Times tomorrow morning, can we stand in front of the American people and justify it? Can we say, ‘this is why we did it’ and hold our heads up high? If you can’t, then you shouldn’t do it.

So it’s a very useful book outlining covert action properly for the first time and creating some interesting ideas, frameworks, and lessons which are still of interest. It provides great insight into a really important part of state behaviour which currently goes misunderstood, despite being very widespread.

Do you think that, broadly, he thinks it’s a tool that should be used? Or preferably avoided?

He talks about the tension between secrecy and the open society that is America, the tension between secrecy and democracy. So, I guess, he’d prefer it be avoided, but he says that if you are going to use it, then you have to be extremely cautious and not be as gung-ho as the CIA had a reputation for being in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the point he wrote it, in 1987, I guess the US was just coming out of the Iran–Contra affair?

Yes, that dominated headlines as he was writing the book. That was, again, an example of excess of covert action going wrong and, indeed, failing Treverton’s New York Times test. When it was leaked in the newspapers, they couldn’t justify it and they couldn’t defend it, which obviously led to the scandal. I think that’s an important idea which definitely remains relevant today.

I think a lot of people feel that covert action is reprehensible per se. We don’t like the idea of it.

A lot of people struggle with it because of the fact that it is secret and has an inherent tension with open democracy. They say that it is inherently wrong and that democracies like Britain and America just shouldn’t do it, full stop. But, at the same time, if the covert action is in support of an openly declared foreign policy and has appropriate oversight mechanisms, then I think it can be reconciled with democracy.

Yes, because in the case of Iraq, say, if the US had managed to assassinate Saddam Hussein rather than engaging in an all-out war, a lot less damage would have been done. Are they constantly trying to do things like that? Is somebody trying to assassinate Kim Jong Un right now? Is someone trying to assassinate leaders that they don’t like all the time and just not succeeding? Or is the US using other tools these days, like fake news?

It’s generally other tools. America has been conducting targeted killing using drones, particularly against terrorists, but assassination of foreign leaders is not regularly attempted. And even less so in Britain, where Britain has no track record of this to speak of since the 1950s. So, who knows? Maybe there are discussions about Kim Jong Un, but there are other tools available which might be more appropriate.

What about Saddam Hussein, since the Iraq war was very much about toppling him?

Interestingly, just before the Iraq war, Tony Blair suggested to George Bush that they might want to try and overthrow—not kill—Saddam Hussein covertly, using MI6 and the CIA, instead of the intervention that we ultimately saw and which was so disastrous. There was an argument that trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein quietly, quickly, and cheaply would be better and more justified in the long run than launching an endless campaign of open warfare. But it wasn’t done. The CIA said no, and one of the reasons for that was because the CIA had tried, in the past, to use covert action to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Particularly in the aftermath of Gulf War I, they lobbied rebel groups and dissidents to engage in an uprising against Saddam Hussein. When Saddam launched a crackdown on the said uprising, the Americans looked the other way and offered no support. This led to a crisis of trust between rebels in Iraq and the CIA. The CIA recognised this and said, ‘Well, if we’re going to try to sponsor another revolution in Iraq instead of doing a military intervention, the rebels aren’t going to want to cooperate with us because we hung them out to dry last time.’ That was obviously very problematic.

Let’s talk about the next book on your list. This is Executive Secrets by William J. Daugherty, from 1996. This is specifically about the CIA. Tell me about it.

This is by a CIA officer who turned historian. This is a really useful book because it cuts through a lot of the myths. There are so many books on the CIA. Many of them focus on failure and many of them heavily mythologise the CIA as this rampant organisation running wild, going around and killing people left right and centre without any oversight and without any accountability. They’re shown as an absolute nightmare for the president and for America’s global image.

What Daugherty says is that, actually, presidents have a role in covert action. He says that members of the public who are inherently opposed to covert action don’t like to think that it’s traced back to the president. He says that even presidents who are publicly opposed to covert action, such as Jimmy Carter, still use it. Carter launched propaganda campaigns and supported underground printing presses behind the Iron Curtain, all to try and attack the legitimacy of the Soviet Union.

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The other argument Daugherty makes, which I think is really important, is that it can be successful. He argues that it helped end the Cold War, and that covert support for trade unions and political parties in Europe helped to stave off Soviet encroachment in western Europe. He also argues that covert support for minorities behind the Iron Curtain helped to enable their cultural identities to flourish and to carry on existing, despite Soviet oppression, and this kept the flame of resistance alive. So, I think this book is a really useful one for anyone wanting to understand the role of covert action—the role of deniable or unacknowledged intervention—in today’s world because it offers such a balanced approach. It’s not just criticising the CIA, he’s saying, ‘Look, this is linked back to the president and sometimes it works.’

Do you broadly agree with Daugherty’s analysis and conclusions?

I do, yes. I certainly agree that covert action has been thoroughly mythologised and this idea that they’re all going around and killing people is a myth based on things like James Bond. I also certainly agree that it is traced back to presidents and, in Britain, to prime ministers. Nine times out of ten, British covert action can be traced back to 10 Downing Street and the Foreign Office. I also agree with the conclusion that it can be successful.

“Nine times out of ten, British covert action can be traced back to 10 Downing Street and the Foreign Office.”

I think Treverton, my first choice, is right that it must be used cautiously and we definitely shouldn’t get carried away. It should not be seen as a silver bullet by presidents and prime ministers to do something quickly, cheaply, and quietly, without proper scrutiny. But when it is used properly, when it has been properly scrutinised and when it has been properly integrated into foreign policy, then I think there is a place for it as one method in the state’s foreign policy arsenal.

Of the British prime ministers, would you say there’s one who has abused covert action?

Eden famously abused it in the 1950s over Suez. He was so blinded by his personal hatred of the Egyptian president Nasser that he turned to MI6 to launch their own parallel foreign policy, in contrast to what the Foreign Office were doing, just to try and kill him, basically. It didn’t work out as Eden had intended, and he came up with a load of crazy schemes, none of which worked.

The other prime ministers who really liked this stuff were Churchill and Thatcher. Churchill loved special operations and anything secret. Thatcher loved MI6 and wanted to harness the power of intelligence and special forces as a force multiplier to ensure Britain’s role in the world, even though our economic and military capabilities were declining.

Would you say, on balance, that it worked for Thatcher?

Yes, I think so. She took quite a macho approach to it. The covert action in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when we supported the Mujahedeen against Soviet occupation, is widely considered an example of successful covert action, particularly in the early years.

Next up is MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery. Tell me about this book.

We’re turning to the UK now. Keith’s book is really useful because it highlights that Britain does this stuff too; we’re not just talking about the CIA and American activity. The book is particularly important because it is an authorised history. It’s the first time an academic or any outsider has ever had access to MI6 files. MI6 are notoriously closed and British authorities tend to fetishize secrecy, so the fact that he was able to go into their archives and have a good old rummage allowed for a very significant and original book.

The outcome is a book that is broader than covert action, and talks about intelligence generally. We should remember that covert action is just a small percentage of what MI6 do, that most of what they do is intelligence gathering rather than event-shaping. But, in terms of covert action, his book rescues British history from the dominance of the ‘Special Operations Executive.’ The vast majority of British books about special operations focus on World War II and an organisation called the Special Operations Executive, which was established by Churchill with the express directive to ‘set Europe ablaze.’ It was an organisation that did sabotage and sponsored partisans behind enemy lines.

Keith Jeffery says, ‘Yes, there was the Special Operations Executive but MI6, after the war, are important in this field as well.’ The book only goes up to 1949, unfortunately, because of issues of classification and secrecy, but we start to get a hint of what MI6 was doing in the post-war world. There were operations in Palestine, for example. They were trying to sabotage ships to prevent illegal immigration going to Palestine, which was very controversial in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II. With the operation in Albania which we mentioned earlier, the book gives detailed accounts of what happened using sources that no one else had access to. It gives an account of MI6’s attempts to work with Soviet emigres to try and penetrate the Soviet bloc in the late 1940s, showing a very fine line between intelligence and covert action.

So the book is really useful in that it’s authoritative, it relies on official sources, and shows us that MI6 are doing this—that Britain does this—and it’s not just the domain of the CIA. It’s a shame that it doesn’t go further than 1949. There are plenty of other books that do, but they don’t have the same kind of access. I’d also recommend The Art of Betrayal by Gordon Corera as a book on MI6 which goes beyond 1949. But I think Keith’s is worth highlighting because it is an authorised history and he has had access to secret papers that nobody else outside of MI6 has ever seen.

Your next book is about the KGB. This is The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin.

I wanted my book choices to reflect that all different states are up to this stuff. This is a really, really important book, with a very fascinating story of how it came about. It’s based on top-secret KGB foreign intelligence archives which, along with the archivist, Mitrokhin, were smuggled out of Russia in 1992 by MI6. Mitrokhin collaborated with perhaps the world’s most preeminent intelligence historian, Christopher Andrew of Cambridge, to write this book exposing and blowing the lid on Soviet covert action and intelligence more broadly throughout the Cold War. It’s a landmark book because it shows us the scope and the global reach of what they were doing. There were operations such as trying to discredit the long-time FBI director J Edgar Hoover by smearing him as a predatory homosexual. There were operations to try and discredit Martin Luther King because the Soviets wanted to try to stoke up a race war. There were also revelations about secret stores of arms dumped inside the US and the UK, ready for Soviet agents to use for sabotage. From a contemporary perspective, it tells us that all this talk about Russian covert action against the United States is nothing new. Russia has been trying to manipulate American elections for a long time. And this book is really important in helping us understand the historical context behind Russian covert action and provides insights into what we’re seeing today. I think it’s really dangerous to only think about covert action through a contemporary lens. This activity has been going on for a very long time. There’s nothing new about what we’re reading in the news at the moment.

Wasn’t Putin in the KGB for fifteen years? It makes sense that he might resort to his traditional tools.

Yes, he was. Putin has an intelligence background and other people high in the Kremlin have intelligence backgrounds. It’s not really a surprise that they are turning to the hidden hand to try to destabilise the west, NATO, the European Union, and to try to promote their interests in post-Soviet space in the Ukraine and the Baltics. Again, they’ve been using the hidden hand—what the Soviets call ‘active measures’—for a very, very long time. This book is a really authoritative and detailed account, but also one that is a gripping read at the same time.

In the past, which American election did the Russians try to interfere with and how? Is it a lot easier to be successful these days with social media?

Social media has been really useful in allowing a state to better target its propaganda. In the old days, states like Russia, America, and Britain would basically spam a country with radio broadcasts and newspapers to try to influence a particular election. They’d insert articles into newspapers, for example, or even covertly buy up a certain newspaper, to get their message across. But they had no way of knowing who was reading it or how successful it was. What we have now, with the advent of mass data and social media, is the ability to target really, really carefully the people we think are most likely to be swayed by the message. We can tailor the message to make it as powerful as possible for that particular individual. That’s what, according to American intelligence, we saw the Russians doing in the 2016 presidential election. They were homing in on certain areas in swing states so that the propaganda would have the maximum impact. You can start to measure it as well because you have these metrics; you can quantify it much more easily with social media.

So the actual means of targeting is a lot more sophisticated now with social media, but the general point, the plan, and the driver is quite similar. It’s about trying to disrupt, discredit, and to build somebody up.

Finally, we have a book about Israeli covert action. You’ve picked Rise and Kill First by Ronen Bergman.

In stark contrast to some of the other books which were written by insiders, this book is 100 per cent unofficial and unauthorised. It’s written by a journalist, albeit a journalist with a history PhD. It’s based on interviews and documents that he’s been given over the years. It’s the kind of story that the Israelis didn’t want telling and, in fact, tried to prevent the book from being published.

It deals with the most controversial area of covert action: that of assassination and targeted killing. It focuses on perhaps the most feared and most mythologised intelligence service of all, the Israeli Mossad. The thing I found most striking about this book was the scope and scale of the Israeli targeted killing program. According to the book, since the creation of Israel, the Israeli state has engaged in more targeted killings than any other country in the whole western world.

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I think this book is really useful. First of all, it’s a great read and he’s a great writer. Also, it’s very balanced. He points out some of the operational successes where assassination has actually worked. He recognises the moral price which Israel might be paying for relying so heavily on assassination. He also uncovers or explores some of the reasons behind Israel’s focus on targeted killing as a tool of foreign policy. Israel does this more than America, certainly more than Britain and France. He says this is for a variety of reasons: it can be traced back to the revolutionary, activist roots of Zionism; it can be traced back to the trauma of the Holocaust; and it can be traced back to the perpetual threat of annihilation which Israel feels it faces on a daily basis. All of this leads to a quite staggering program of targeted killing which Bergman has uncovered. It’s a remarkable piece of investigative journalism, shining a light on the most secret part of a very secret intelligence agency.

I wouldn’t have thought that killing people is that effective. Let’s say some horrible world leader who is torturing his own people is killed. He’s just going to be replaced by someone like him who is equally dodgy, isn’t he? I can’t understand how assassinations can be that useful as a tool of policy.

Yes, it’s an important argument. Regardless of the ethics and morality of doing this, there’s a lot of debate about whether it actually works. It depends on who the target is; it depends how much of a cult of personality there is around them and how effective they are. For example, plans to kill Hitler were nipped in the bud because the Brits realised that he would be replaced by someone much more effective—Hitler was actually a pretty weak military commander—so they decided against killing him in that particular instance. Killing bin Laden, for example, arguably changed the nature of al-Qaeda because his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was quite different in approach. So, in some cases, maybe it can change the outlook or the structure of the organisation.

But Bergman argues that it can be useful because, even if they are eventually replaced like for like, you have, in the meantime, in the case of Israel, prevented a suicide attack. You have taken away an immediate threat, someone who was in the planning stages of launching a suicide attack and, therefore, that can be seen as justification.

So, a lot of the high numbers coming out of Israel are the result of targeting suicide bombers—which isn’t so much of an issue in other countries—rather than to do with them being particularly fond of this approach?

Yes, that is definitely a factor. Israel obviously faces the very real threat of suicide bombing much closer to home than Britain or America. We’re talking about assassination here of terrorists and terrorist leaders, rather than statesmen or world leaders. So, yes, that maybe distorts the numbers. But I think what is still striking is this willingness to turn to this very controversial tactic. Britain and America, traditionally, even in counter-terrorism, would try a more police-based, judicial criminalisation approach, in contrast to the Israelis who are much more willing to use targeted killing. This is at least until post-9/11, when we started to see the Americans step up their drone program quite dramatically.

Are there any other countries that stand out in terms of being quite activist in covert action?

France has a reputation for being quite activist in covert action, but a lot less is known about it unfortunately. The Chinese are stepping up some of their efforts at the moment, particularly through propaganda. But it’s mainly dominated by Britain, America, Israel, and France.

It’s fascinating that not everybody has jumped on the bandwagon.

The problem we have as writers and scholars is that it’s really hard to know. There have been news reports of various covert operations in Africa, for example, but, because it’s quite contemporary, we don’t have the archival basis to demonstrate these things. And, also, we suffer massively from an Anglo-American centrism in the history of this activity. The overwhelming majority of our case studies and scholars and historians working on this are looking at the CIA and, to a lesser extent, Britain. This definitely pollutes our understanding of it as a global issue because there may well be numerous examples in southeast Asia, for example, that frankly we don’t know about because no one has published on it in the English language. The great history books of the future are going to be people going into the archives of countries in southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America and uncovering covert action in the hidden history of those countries. I doubt it would be on the same scale as America and Britain, because America and Britain use this as a global tool whereas other countries don’t have quite such a global reach. They might use intelligence for more domestic purposes. But there’s great scope for historians to broaden our understanding of covert action beyond the Anglosphere.

What did you think when the North Korean leader had his half-brother assassinated? Does that count as North Korean covert action?

I wouldn’t say it was covert action because it’s not interfering in the affairs of other states. It was a domestic assassination. Whereas, when the North Koreans were sabotaging or disrupting the British parliament’s email addresses or the NHS, that would count as covert action. One of these reasons why these states don’t do as much international covert action is because authoritarian regimes traditionally focus their intelligence resources on suppressing internal dissent rather than trying to mess around in other countries.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Rory Cormac

Rory Cormac is an Associate Professor of International Relations specialising in Secret Intelligence, Covert Action, and National Security. Between 2015 and 2017, he held an AHRC Fellowship examining British approaches to covert action, 1945-1968. Rory is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.