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Britain's approach to covert action between 1945 and 1968 - Interview with Researcher Rory Cormac


Dr Rory Cormac, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham received funding from the AHRC for a Fellowship entitled "Most Unusual Measures: British Approaches to Covert Activity, 1945-68".

Dr Rory Cormac, delving into the archives. Picture Courtesy of Rory Cormac

The fellowship explores the UK's approach to covert action. As part of his research Rory studied files in the National Archives, documents at the University of Cambridge and travelled to Washington DC to look at American papers; also travelling to a small town in rural Kansas to look at President Dwight D. Eisenhower's documents. As Rory says, "Travelling the world and following the archive trail is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of being a historian".

In this interview we ask: What does covert action look like? Is it all gunfights and car chases like James Bond?

AH: Can you tell us what inspired you to undertake this intriguing research?

RC: I vividly remember a lecture as an MA student when my professor told us that the CIA had secretly funded American artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. It was one of those moments at university where you just think 'wow'. Ever since I've been interested in intelligence and the murky things that go on beneath the surface. Since then, my research has focused on the history of British intelligence. I’ve explored the relationship between prime ministers and the secret service, revealing how Number 10 became ever more involved in clandestine affairs; how MI5 spied on King Edward VIII before and after his abdication (the subject of a major two-part documentary series broadcast on Channel 4 in April 2017). This is the subject of my AHRC fellowship, and has led me into the shadowy world of coups, propaganda, election-rigging and covert warfare.


Britain was no less active than the CIA...It..did things differently and was better at keeping operations secret "


This particular project evolved out of my doctoral research. I kept coming across a mysterious group buried deep inside the British government that nobody seemed to have heard of. They coordinated British covert operations in Yemen and Indonesia in the 1960s - and I was determined to find out more.

AH: To the layperson it sounds all CI5 and James Bond– is there any truth in this? (To those who are too young to remember, CI5 was the fictional department portrayed in a TV Series The Professionals between 1977-1983)

RC: One of the most intriguing parts of researching the secret state is trying to separate fact from fiction. British intelligence has always been so mythologised. This can have benefits for the spies, who are seen as all-powerful, but is problematic for historians. British covert action is about disrupting adversaries. It is about frustrating and embroiling the opposition, often through nuisance value as much as anything else. MI6 has used some controversial methods though, including planting incriminating material on people, knowing that they'd be arrested (or worse). As for the famous license to kill - the files show assassination was discussed on more than one occasion. British officials discussed assassinating President Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s, leaders of Syria as part of an attempt to overthrow the regime in 1957, and the Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, in 1960.


Assassination was discussed on more than one occasion "


AH: Are we saying that the UK was no less active, only that we did things in a more 'polite' and 'British' way?

RC: Britain was no less active than the CIA. It just did things differently and was better at keeping operations secret. Generally, it relied on longer-term and less provocative operations than the Americans. That said, there is more than one occasion when the CIA despaired at what they saw as MI6 recklessness. For example, some in MI6 wanted to overthrow at least four different Middle Eastern governments between 1955 and 1957. The CIA couldn't believe it.


MI6 - Picture courtesy of Rory Cormac

AH: Is there a very notable event or occasion when we did display our prowess, either covertly or overtly? And did we make any mistakes with our intentions (whether this was to either hide or publish?)

RC: In 1953, MI6 worked with the CIA to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister. It was a notable occasion where Britain worked covertly through subversion, bribery and propaganda to protect its own interests after the Iranians had nationalised the oil. The operation was seen as a success and demonstrated the power of the secret state.

British covert action was reactive. It was a defensive "they started it" approach. It was almost a "whack-a-mole" approach. The British did not think it right initially to use these measures in peacetime and only did so when others used them first, or at least that's how they justified it.

AH: Are there any similarities between now and then? And how do you think these strategies will develop in the future?

RC: There are loads of similarities. Britain still uses disruption operations, especially on the small scale tactical level. The aim is to disrupt terrorist groups or weapons traffickers just as it was previously to disrupt the Soviet Union. Britain has not covertly overthrown a foreign government since 1970 (Oman) and is unlikely to do so again now. It's more about frustrating terrorists (for example, by bombarding their mobile phones with messages every ten seconds to prevent communications). But these debates were the same as those which broke out in 1945: What is appropriate to do in peacetime? / how can we respond to covert action?

AH: What have you enjoyed most about this research?

RC: I've enjoyed uncovering new secrets best. These are things which the state does not want historians to find out and I've enjoyed the battle of wits against the archival weeders.

Wireless Equipment, PRM 4180 Portable High Speed Data Station, British © IWM (COM 548)

AH: We will probably always have an attachment to intrigue and espionage, rather than 'dramatic tactics', what are your thoughts on this?

RC: Intrigue and espionage will always be important. The UK cannot afford to fight big wars anymore - and, after Iraq, the public don't want to. This means that prime ministers are increasingly turning to secret assets like MI6 or special forces to do things quietly. Despite massive budget cuts elsewhere, both have recently expanded massively.

AH: Do you think the public would be surprised that in an era of “Freedom of Information” that every MI6 file, as you state, remains closed?

RC: The public would be surprised to know just how much stuff is still classified. Britain has a poor record to openness compared to the Americans. Uncovering these stories takes a great deal of time and patience.

AH: Do we need to know what all these organisations do and does that help us?

RC: Knowing the capabilities of the secret state is important. We do not need to know the details of current operations as this would damage national security. However, we should know that these organisations exist and roughly what they do. It's an important part of democracy. At the same time, lack of understanding has also hampered those inside government in their ability to use secret assets.

AH: Where would you like your research to go next?

RC: I'd like to look at British thinking about targeted killing and assassination. The government says that we don't do this. In reality, however, the picture is far more nuanced. I've found numerous examples where people have died and the British hand has been lurking somewhere in the background.

AH: What do you like reading? Has your interest been inspired by fiction, fact or a combination of the two?

RC: Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not a big reader of spy fiction. Sometimes reality is far more exciting. Britain does not do assassination, but it has been known to work with those who do.


The public would be surprised to know how much stuff is still classified "



Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Picture courtesy of Rory Cormac

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