Most Unusual Measures: British Approaches to Covert Activity, 1945-68

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Politics & International Relation

Abstract

This fellowship analyses Britain's approach to covert action between 1945 and 1968. Covert action is a state's intervention in the affairs of another in a plausibly deniable manner, including through propaganda, paramilitary, and subversive political activity. Unlike espionage, it is active and seeks to shape events itself. The project begins with the transition from war to peace and ends with Britain's decision to withdraw from East of Suez in 1968; a year which saw steps toward a more realistic appraisal of Britain's global role and heralded a transition in covert action, from a global to a Northern Ireland focus.

The project's main output, a monograph, will address three broad themes: (i) what covert action reveals about Britain's perceived global role; (ii) how decline and the growing disparity between obligations and strength shaped interventionism; and (iii) Whitehall's evolving understanding of the relationship between intelligence, covert action and policy.

It will argue that Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries used covert action as an instrument of foreign policy and that they did so through SIS, revealing that (a) British intelligence actors actively shaped international relations and (b) covert action was tied to the core executive. Bridging the gap between obligations and strength, Britain developed a series of cautious covert action strategies designed to maintain influence.

Analysis will be divided into three sections. Each will be approached thematically and use qualitative historical method, predominantly through archives in the United Kingdom and America.

Section I: Transition

Exploring how the changing paradigm from war to peace impacted upon British attitudes to covert action, this section will examine a number of covert action strategies developed in the early Cold War. These included an ambitious and short-lived liberation strategy and a more conservative "pinprick" approach, which sought to chip away gradually at Soviet authority. Highlighting greater intervention than historians currently allow, this section seeks to recast Whitehall's early Cold War policy.

Section II: Counter-Subversion

Using covert action as a vehicle to explore Britain's attempts to sustain a global role, this section analyses how policymakers used covert action to overcome political, economic, and military constraints. Exploring geo-strategic contexts, economic issues, and imperial legacies, it examines why covert action was so appealing in the Middle East, colonies, and Commonwealth. It assesses the strategy employed ("counter-subversion"), the tactics executed, and the impact upon the Anglo-American relationship. This section also explores how counter-subversion emphasised propaganda and political action, whilst side-lining military involvement. It places covert action within broader tension between the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence.

Section III: "Jointery"

Examining the evolving concept of "jointery"(liaison between SIS and Special Forces) which developed in the 1960s and remains in place today, this section focuses on the Middle East and South East Asia. It considers how governments used covert action on a larger, more paramilitary, scale to achieve policy goals - and how they ensured deniability in parliament and the United Nations.

It is an opportune time to conduct such research. Firstly, these concepts are highly relevant. They are synonymous with current debates about Britain's global role, as well as the role of intelligence in international affairs. Secondly, recent archival releases permit a rethinking of the practice of British overseas policy and a challenge to existing orthodoxies.

The fellowship will develop my leadership skills through establishing new contacts, managing a Research Assistant, organising a conference, and shaping the international research agenda, helping me to become the foremost expert on British covert action during this period.

Planned Impact

This research will benefit four groups of external stakeholders:

1. Practitioners and foreign policy makers in Whitehall

This project serves as a conceptual bridge between history and contemporary policy. Using detailed archival research, it will generate new data from which policy-relevant lessons can be constructed. Practitioners will benefit through enhanced understanding of structural matters surrounding the organisation of covert action, as well as the importance of coherence between overt and covert policies.

2. Politicians (including Intelligence and Security Committee members) in Westminster

Politicians, including those engaged in oversight, will benefit from understanding the risks and rewards of covert intervention. Archival research will demonstrate when, how, and why covert action succeeded or failed in the past. They will also benefit from an enhanced understanding of the debate between secret versus transparent foreign policies.

3. Think tanks and non-academic researchers

This research will interest think-tank audiences. Addressing core issues of Britain's power and global role, it will appeal to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Analysts at RUSI would benefit from an enhanced understanding of how covert action was used after the Second World War as part of broader foreign and defence policy. I intend to draw upon my existing networks to engage in dialogue with such organisations as the research develops (see the Pathway to Impact).

4. The public

Covert action is a fascinating, controversial, and emotive topic. Intelligence has dominated the headlines since 2013 - from torture in Kenya to the twenty-first century surveillance state. It is a subject in which the general public are interested. They would benefit from an enhanced knowledge and understanding of:

a. Intelligence operations and Whitehall's secret state since the Second World War;
b. Britain's place and role in the world;
c. The role of intelligence in democratic foreign policy.

Media channels will be used to ensure the public are aware of this research project and to inform national public debate. These include Radio 4, national newspapers, and social media. I will also seek to work with the Imperial War Museum - and their exhibition on Secret War. Finally, I will host a public screening of "Skyfall" at the Broadway cinema in Nottingham to discuss the reality behind popular representations of covert action (see Pathways to Impact).
 
Description My research examined British approaches to covert action and deniable interventions between 1945 and 1968. The major research output, a monograph with Oxford University Press, contains the significant new findings.

Although covert action is mostly associated with the American Central Intelligence Agency, paramilitary activities, and the Cold War, my research has shown, using primary documents, that Britain engages in covert action too. The research has uncovered new MI6 operations and new understandings of how Britain organised and funded covert action. My research has, for the first time, revealed how Whitehall understood covert action. Most scholars assume that covert action is an American phrase, but British actors have been using it since 1945. Yet it means something different on this side of the Atlantic. In Britain, covert action is understood by function (deniable intervention) rather than actor. This means that practitioners take a flexible approach in which MI6, Special Forces, GCHQ, and propaganda actors have all undertaken covert action.

My research was also the first to distil a British "way" in covert action. This includes (i) reliance on propaganda and influence operations as an enabler of other types of operation; (ii) a defensive approach designed to maintain the status quo and prevent British decline, in which covert action is always portrayed as a counter-attack; (iii) a cautious approach relying on disruption operations and pilot schemes rather than more ambitious paramilitary activity; (iv) a long-standing desire to ensure maximum deniability, meaning that Britain often worked through allies to lengthen the chain of responsibility from the theatre to the sponsor; and (v) the integration of covert action into policy. MI6 rarely acted of its own volition and the vast majority of covert actions can be traced back to the most senior policymakers in the land. Many of these features remain true today, in an era when politicians increasingly turn to MI6 and Special Forces to fix problems.

The research also uncovered numerous resources. These include primary sources recently declassified, or long-lying hidden, in the National Archives as well as those obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The most important documents on British covert action have, as part of this project, been digitised and placed on a website. This includes all data acquired through the FOI. It is important to bring these sources to as wide a range of scholars and students as possible.

The project has developed new research questions to be taken forward in the future. It has uncovered a British "way" in covert action. It is now important to compare the British culture to those of other countries such as America, France, and Israel to determine the drivers of covert action and whether types of user-states exist. It is also important to ask what difference covert action made in contemporary history. The research has problematized the issues of success, failure, and impact. It will take another project to fully explore these issues. I was awarded a Leverhulme International Academic Fellowship to spend a term at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC to research these issues in 2018. This was a natural extension of my AHRC project and I am successfully building an international profile as a research leader.
Exploitation Route My findings will be of use to:

Historians.
They shed new light on post-war British foreign, defence, and colonial policy. Covert action reveals much about Britain's place in the world, its interventionism, and its "special" relationship with the United States. The findings demonstrate how Whitehall consistently turned to "fancy footwork" to mask decline and manage both the Cold War and decolonisation.

Intelligence Studies.
They provide a new framework for understanding how Britain approaches covert action and the relationship between intelligence, covert action, and policy in the British system.

Political Scientists and Security Studies.
They offer new detail on Whitehall's historical secret policy machinery, which, in turn, generates insights which remain relevant today. Likewise, my findings help conceptualise different types of state interventions, from secret warfare to sponsoring insurgencies, to disruption.

Practitioners, Policymakers, and Non-Academic Researchers.
I have worked with NGOs concerned with oversight and transparency; practitioners planning counter-terrorism and foreign policy; and think-tanks debating contemporary issues of intelligence and Britain's response to "hybrid warfare". In each case, my research has offered lessons from history, but also used historical cases studies to offer insight into current thinking and approaches. All are in a position to take my findings forward.

General Public.
I have appeared on national and international media platforms discussing intelligence and covert operations. I have helped increase public awareness of this important but much misunderstood and mythologised part of government, as demonstrated by testimony from key stakeholders as well as "below the line" comments and debate by members of the public. These topics raise important issues of democratic accountability.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

URL https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cst/research/most-unusual-measures/index.aspx
 
Description I have made much progress in working with non-academic stakeholders throughout the fellowship. I organised and hosted a session in conjunction with the RUSI think-tank on countering "hybrid warfare". This was attended by practitioners, policymakers, and academics. It provided a forum to discuss the role of intelligence, Special Forces, and others in countering Russia's assertive foreign policy. My own specific contribution was on drawing lessons from history and demonstrating that many of these issues which, although apparently new, existed during the Cold War. I have also published on lessons from covert action history in the RUSI journal, which is widely read by non-academic researchers and practitioners. I have worked closely with another non-academic stakeholder, the Oxford Research Group and their Remote Control project. This examines the role of intelligence and special forces in contemporary warfare. My involvement included, being interviewed for, and having my research cited in, their report. I also attended a roundtable to develop policy recommendations surrounding oversight and accountability to be put policymakers. I organised a session, in conjunction with the University of Warwick and the Home Office. The one-day workshop provided an opportunity for academics studying counter-terrorism to engage with practitioners as they developed the new UK Counter-Terrorism Strategy. I spoke on information operations and countering propaganda, and was invited to talk with the Research Information and Communications Unit, also based in the Home Office, as a follow-up. Furthermore, I deliver regular sessions on covert action as part of the King's College London intelligence course for Cabinet Office practitioners. I also delivered a talk to analysts at HMRC. All of this impact activity has taken place in the last 12 months and is ongoing. Scope to increase the effectiveness of policy exists in all of these areas. It is too soon to state exactly how my findings have been used, but the AHRC fellowship has allowed me to build important relationships with practitioners and NGOs and I will build on these as my career develops. Finally, my pathways to impact has included engaging with the general public. At the local level, I delivered a successful public lecture which introduced the latest James Bond film, SPECTRE. At the national level, I have built a media profile, writing for outlets such as The Conversation, appearing twice on Radio 4's document programme, and giving numerous interviews (culminating in an appearance on the BBC Breakfast red sofa). In 2017, my research was made into its own radio programme and broadcast to 500,000 people on Radio 4. It made headlines in most UK national newspapers and was picked up on the Today Programme. I have also delivered a talk to the public at the National Archives, this included organising a display of documents used in my research. At the international level, I have appeared in the media from Germany to South Korea talking about intelligence and covert operations. Since finishing my fellowship, I have continued to engage with practitioners in the UK and US. I presented my work on British covert action to historians in both the US State Department and the US Pentagon. This helped shape understanding of British activity and how it played into American history. I also presented my research at the Cabinet Office National Security Staff seminar series. Again, my input helped build understanding and capacity.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description 'Intelligence and Covert Action in a World of Big Data' (HMRC, Lincoln: 2017).
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Delivered session for a Cabinet Office course on intelligence
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Home Office, CONTEST refresh event
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
 
Description Working with the Oxford Research Group project on Remote Control Warfare
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Title Created a new database of archival documents on British intelligence and covert action 
Description I created a website which hosts around 100 archival documents concerning British intelligence and covert action. These have proved integral to my own research (but are very hard to find) and the website seeks to bring these important primary sources to as wide an audience of researchers and students as possible. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Too soon to tell 
URL https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cst/research/most-unusual-measures/index.aspx
 
Description Appearance on Radio 4, 'Document' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed on covert operations in Albania (drawing directly on my research) for a Radio 4 documentary. It was part of the long-running "Document" series and aired in 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description BBC History Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As a result of my growing profile, I was approached by the BBC History Magazine to work with them on a 4 page feature about Cold War bunkers in Britain. This was published in Summer 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Buzzfeed article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviews, and my quotes featured prominently in, an article on Britain's freedom of information act. The article covered some of the difficulties I have encountered whilst researching my AHRC project.

Alan White, 'The Government Is Stopping Us Writing About Spies And The Royal Family, Say Historians', Buzzfeed, March 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.buzzfeed.com/alanwhite/the-government-is-stopping-us-writing-about-spies-and-the-ro#.otvQ...
 
Description Cinema Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk sparked questions and stimulated thinking. The talk was an introduction to a screening of the James Bond film SPECTRE at the local cinema.

N/A
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Conference on Covert Action 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I hosted a conference at Nottingham bringing together academics, NGOs, and practitioners interested in covert action. The keynote came from Israel. This took place in September 2016. It was very successful and I received excellent feedback. It provided a forum to discuss the latest research on this topic as well as to develop new networks. It also served as a platform to develop new collaborative research and funding bids.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Document: MI6's Secret Slush Fund, Radio 4, (November 2017) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact My research featured in an episode of Document, broadcast on Channel 4. It reached 500,000 views and was picked up on the Today Programme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description I wrote a column, based on my research, for the Sunday Mirror 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I wrote a column based directly on my research for the Sunday Mirror in Feb 2018. The Deputy Political Editor stated that it shaped his understanding of covert operations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description ISA Conference (Atlanta) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I attended the International Studies Association annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I was asked to deliver 2 papers on:

Bureaucratic Politics and the Construction of British Covert Action, 1948-1968
UK Prime Ministers and Secret Intelligence: From Circumspection to Centrality

These were successfully delivered to an audience of (predominantly) American academics and intelligence practitioners. They sparked a great deal of conversation and debate. This engagement has aided my international networking and has developed further ideas to boost the quality of my research outputs
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description International Conference: ISA 2017, Baltimore 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presented my conclusions to a group of international academics, including practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited lecture at University of Canterbury, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited lecture for staff and students in the Humanities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited talk at the Home Office, 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited to give a talk on intelligence, political warfare, information operations, and counter-terrorism at the Home Office. This was delivered jointly with Prof Richard Aldrich ,Warwick.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description MI6 chief visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact I invited former chief of MI6, Sir John Sawers, to Nottingham to discuss issues surrounding intelligence. He gave a guest lecture to around 300 students. This developed my links with the practitioner community and was a fantastic opportunity for students to listen to such an authoritative figure.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Media appearance: BBC Breakfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Based on my enhanced profile afforded by the AHRC scholarship, I was invited to Salford to discuss issues of intelligence and covert operations on BBC breakfast. This aired live in January 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Media interviews 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Building on my enhanced profile afforded by the AHRC fellowship, I have appeared live on numerous stations in late 2016 and early 2017 talking about intelligence and covert operations.
These include:
• BBC Radio 5 Live (Drive)
• BBC World Service (Outside Source)
• Deutsche Welle [Germany]
• TBS eFM (Primetime) [South Korea]
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
 
Description RUSI Practitioner Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact My research was used to shape the debate on British responses to deniable interventionism. This event, hosted at RUSI, brought together senior policymakers and practitioners from the Ministry of Defence, parliamentary select committees, and elsewhere in Whitehall. The intention was to facilitate discussion about the role covert action and political warfare can play. My research sparked discussion from senior figures included a former Foreign Secretary and former Director of Special Forces. RUSI and the practitioners found the session useful and are keen to take it forward to a larger conference with outputs including policy relevant briefing papers etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Radio 4: Document 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact N/A. I appeared on a national radio programme (Document, R4) discussing material uncovered through my research

N/A
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Talk and document display at The National Archives 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to the general public at the National Archives, including a document display. This aimed to disseminate research findings to a broad audience, build knowledge and understanding, and spark debate / discussion afterwards
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk at RUSI on AHRC conclusions, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Gave a lecture on my AHRC conclusions at a Whitehall thinktank. The audience included academics, policy makers and practitioners
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk at the Special Forces Club 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited to give a talk on my AHRC research to practitioners and retired professionals at the Special Force Club in London, 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016