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Home > Reviews > Disrupt and Deny

Disrupt and Deny

Author Rory Cormac

ISBN No 9780198784593

Review date 19/05/2019

No of pages 416

Publisher Oxford University Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 25/07/2018


Our Review


£ 20 (hardback)

Rory Cormac has written a history of British 'covert action' since 1945, 'which does not officially exist and for which the files are indefinitely closed'. And yet it's become part of popular culture, and has become identified with the British; consider the episode of The Simpsons when Homer Simpson as a lone agent has disrupted a rocket flight from inside a hollow mountain (a classic James Bond plot) and parachutes to safety to the tune of a James Bond trumpet theme; and his parachute has a Union Jack on it.

The sub-title better explains Cormac's subject; 'Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy'. Depending on how interested you are in modern British history, you might want to skip the landing of Albanians from the sea into their homeland with the hope of destabilising the new Communist regime, 'regime change in Iran', and before and after the Suez Canal debacle of 1956, and Yemen and Indonesia, lands where it's hard to believe we had an imperial reason to be there, well within living memory.

Concentrate instead on the later chapters of the book, which take us very near to the present. Start for instance with 'the new agenda' after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. The Sierra Leone affair (a counter-coup in 1998 with aid from the private security company Sandline) according to Cormac 'raised important questions about covert action in the era of private security companies, with thin lines existing between state intelligence and mercenaries'.

To leave him for a minute, just as state sector workers generally may move into the private sector (after all, what are they supposed to do? hum?) so ever since 1945 those like the later Conservative MP Julian Amery who had served in the 1939-45 in covert warfare carried on taking an interest (and what could be more natural, harking after the excitement of youth). Were the spies and special forces supposed to ignore the private military, as a source of intelligence if nothing else? As this shows, if covert action is 'murky', it's by the very nature of the 'hidden hand'. The covert actors draw on who they can, and just as covert actors may be able to make use of the private military sector, and thus be able to deny knowledge - 'deniability' is a theme running through the book - so the American and British secret services may use one another, to do the dirtier work that they can then deny to their politicians and paymasters.

If anything, covert action is more in use, because better suited, to the more complicated and fast-communicating 21st century. Gone are the fixed boundaries of the Cold War. Covert action, Cormac suggests, since 9-11 has become 'a form of risk management', whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or against counter-terrorism generally, whatever the colour of the political party in charge. Covert action - like hiring private military security, you might add - offers 'a middle ground between massive intervention and doing nothing'.

Deniability has to be plausible, although the less plausible covert action gets, at least it sends a message to the regime or dictator aimed at, that Britain (or its ally the United States) is gunning for it. Covert action also has the advantage of 'shielding politicians and the most senior civil servants from making direct orders'. Readers may want to pay particular attention to the chapter on Northern Ireland (picture by Mark Rowe; street art, Derry-Londonderry), which after all was (and is) not some foreign land we want to keep Communists out of, but part of the United Kingdom. One of the 'murky' sides of covert action is, as Cormac points out, that it generally aims 'to disrupt rather than make kings'; while provocative, it cannot overthrow regimes by itself. Covert action, Cormac describes at the start of a concluding final chapter, was 'a form of fancy footwork', that Britain embraced partly because its power was waning, and it was a way of being useful to the United States. Paradoxically, covert action, even if it looked underhand and aggressive, such as seeking to destabilise the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe, was seen by those behind it as defensive. "Covert action was the outcome of compromise and bargaining."

A quibble might be that the author has left out various angles of interest; has only covered in passing the recruitment of covert actors, the funding, the no doubt (?) exciting stories. That said, he makes the shrewd point that 'it can be difficult to distinguish real activity from barroom bluster', boasts over brandy and cigars.

How then has Cormac studied his subject? By drawing on what has been published, some official files, and inquiries such as Chilcot into the Iraq War; and 'private information'. In fairness to Cormac, he has ably steered what he calls 'a toxic combination for the sober historian trying to distinguish fact from fantasy', and in an already substantially-sized book that has a time-linear structure there's only so much he could include.

Let no-one fool themselves with James Bond illusions. Cormac writes chillingly that 'Britain has not overthrown a government since 1970' (Oman in fact). Those Albanians were deposited into their country callously in 1949, to see if they would survive, like canaries down a mine. Especially controversial is whether British agents assassinate, above all controversial in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Cormac's judgement is that 'a pattern exists of indrect involvement in killings, without British agents having to pull the trigger - or even give the order - themselves'. One is reminded of the biographer of Hitler, Prof Sir Ian Kershaw's concept of 'working towards the Fuehrer'; Nazis did not need a written order to do their worst, such as the extermination of the Jews; they were given a sniff of the task, that they wanted to do, and set about it, deniably.

However Cormac makes plain throughout and sums up in the conclusion that covert action is necessary and other countries do it, for policy goals. It's complicated, as the regular military, politicians, and the Foreign Office all merit a say, and how can you get complete approval of things inherently secret? "British covert action," Cormac judges, "is a product of personality, departmental rivalries, and bureaucratic processes, as well as a rational response to a rising threat."

How well has it actually done? Cormac says its record since 1945 has been 'mixed'. Some failures are obvious, some (such as Northern Ireland against the IRA) 'open to interpretation'. He suggests that covert action 'is a constant balance between action and caution'; and is not all politics and diplomacy?

Deftly Cormac points out the ambiguous nature and results of covert action. It may have helped the Soviet bloc to totter, yet by creating paranoia in Moscow, it 'helped to prolong the Cold War', which Cormac splits into two, a second wave from the 1970s. Covert action is a tool, that achieves little and at worst is counter-productive. It's no silver bullet (an unfortunate comparison, bullets, perhaps).

Cormac ends with a nod to the cyber-present and the future; he predicts that covert action will 'become more small-scale, tactical and disruptive'. And while Moscow is either reviled or feared for 'hybrid warfare' that disrupts short of real warfare, Cormac points out these 'tricks' are nothing new, neither by Russia nor by ourselves. "Covert action will remain a constant as long as the UK competes for influence, for a global role."

For more documents, see About the author: Dr Rory Cormac is an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham.