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Covert action is theatre – and the curtain isn’t coming down yet

We are told that intelligence activities are eye-wateringly secret. Yet they have been surprisingly prominent of late. Senior politicians and armies of online bloggers alike are trading bitter accusations about dark arts and dirty tricks.

Most prominently, Russia stands accused of using “little green men” to annex Crimea, of influencing the 2016 US presidential election, and of spreading divisive so-called “fake news” across Europe to undermine faith in institutions. Many blame the Kremlin for orchestrating the attempted assassination of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.

Meanwhile, Russia accuses the US of interference in the post-Soviet space. And American covert support for various Syrian rebel groups is an open secret. Britain is often mentioned in the same breath.

This is covert action: perhaps the most sensitive – and controversial – of all state activity. Commonly understood as interference in the affairs of other states in a “plausibly deniable” manner, it is, of course, nothing new and is most associated with the CIA and the Cold War. What is striking, however, is the visibility of the supposedly hidden hand behind recent operations.

We seem to be living in an era of open secrecy.

Although “plausible deniability” has always been a fig leaf to an extent, it is certainly difficult to maintain secret sponsorship in the twenty-first century. Whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and civil society all armed with camera phones, USB sticks, and modern communications technology challenge the ability of states to operate in the shadows. Sophisticated algorithms are increasingly able to unravel the origins of computational propaganda campaigns, whilst the proliferation of special forces and private military companies make it easier to spot kinetic operations.

This appears to suggest that states are “sloppy” at covert action; that senior officials are delusional about their ability to maintain secrecy; and that covert action is a dying art form unfit for the twenty-first century.

Upon closer inspection, however, this is simply not the case.

Premiers, policymakers, and even the press are becoming aware of a remarkable truth: covert action does not require absolute secrecy to be successful. In fact, lack of secrecy is not as damaging as we might expect and can actually be deliberate. Uncovering the hidden hand behind an operation is not therefore necessarily an intelligence coup. Covert action has multiple audiences and multiple degrees of exposure.

Indeed, some leaders are embracing implausible deniability.

Covert actions leave calling cards to generate coercion. This is barely disguised “bullying” by any other name. When visible, yet unacknowledged, covert actions allow leaders to communicate quietly, without escalating crises into dangerous conflict.

 States use secret intelligence services to interfere and influence, but they expect to get found out. Exposure is part of the plot.

These covert actions also deliberately create ambiguity. Aided by “fake news” and competing narratives, they blur the lines between truth and fiction, legitimate and illegitimate activity, internal disorder and external intervention, even war and peace. This makes it difficult for the West, and institutions like NATO, to respond. Ambiguity also enables myths to take hold; implausible deniability is a fabulous instrument for creating fear.

Let us take the Skripal case as an example. The Kremlin vehemently denies involvement and yet many people – including the British Foreign Secretary – have pointed the finger squarely at Moscow. If the Russian state was behind the attempted assassination, it raises the question of why do something so visible. Why use a military grade nerve agent traceable to Russia?

It would be naïve to assume that, if Russia was behind it, the Kremlin expected their involvement to remain hidden from foreign intelligence services and the international community alike. The means of execution demonstrated resolve and communicated a message of strength and deterrence without risking escalation. Non-acknowledgement limited the British response.

The means of execution – if Russia was behind it – also deliberately created exploitable ambiguity. It put instant pressure on the US-UK alliance by forcing the American leadership to rate the British intelligence assessment; it put instant pressure on the White House by daring President Trump to speak out against Russia; and it put instant pressure on the UK by forcing agencies to share unprecedented levels of intelligence with European allies in order to implicate Russia.

And if the Russian state was not behind the attack, the swirling narratives – the blurred lines between fact and fiction – have still helped cultivate Putin’s strongman image. They have demonstrated resolve regardless.

Non-acknowledged intervention is performance; covert action is secret theatre. Recognising this, and moving beyond the flawed notion of “plausible deniability”, offers fresh insight into what is going on around us. States use secret intelligence services to interfere and influence, but they expect to get found out. Exposure is part of the plot. Trump and Putin both love a performance. And so, the curtain is not coming down just yet.

Featured image credit: ‘Before the Show’ by Rob Laughter. Public Domain via Unsplash.

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