Mirrors and myths: the role of public perception in shaping covert operations

Entering the world of covert interference is like walking into a funfair world of mirrors. When so little is truly known of the murky world of secret statecraft, our understanding is often led by warped perceptions and exaggerated narratives.
perception and reality covert operations
Has the myth of Russian interference in the 2016 US election outstripped the reality of its impact? Credit: Rozenski P. / Alamy Stock Photo.
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From electoral interference to cyber-sabotage and from disinformation to political meddling and covert operations, secret statecraft is all around us. Whether Chinese agents of influenceRussian propagandists, or American-backed rebel fighters, hidden hands compete to shape global events — and shape perceptions in the process. 

This shadowy activity is paradoxically secretive yet widely discussed everywhere from press reports to government inquiries.

In this murky world of covert operations, such representations of reality are often more important than the reality itself. Given the subterfuge, secrecy and half-truths involved, covert action is less about definitive accounts of events and more about how we interpret them. What is more, these interpretations shape grey zone competition today.

When the Trump White House suggested covertly meddling in Venezuela, the CIA apparently recoiled in horror. Memories of Cold War plots in places such as Guatemala and Chile created something of a hangover and left the CIA loath to deploy its paramilitary forces. And yet, legendary operations in Guatemala in particular have been heavily mythologised first by the CIA itself and then subsequent historians.

Meanwhile, China accuses the West of having stoked recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.  Its narrative of meddling by so-called ‘Black Hands’ emanates in part from perceptions of covert operations — by both sides — which targeted Hong Kong back in the Cold War.  And yet there is still plenty historians do not know about what actually happened.

In this interplay between past and present, the representation of history matters. And so does the representation of current reality. 

Russia, of course, has developed a reputation for excelling in such subterranean statecraft. Putin’s potency in the dark arts is heavily mythologised, even though he has overseen a litany of failures which pushed targets towards EU/NATO and increased perceptions of Russia as a threat. The failure to rig the 2004 Ukrainian election is an early case in point.  

How we tell the stories of covert action — how we represent the reality — becomes crucial.

Information defines and shapes what is known, yet covert action is all about the interplay between appearance and reality. The grey zone is not some blurred line between war and peace; such a thing has always existed. The real grey zone is epistemic: blurred lines between what we know, what we do not know, and what we think we know. 

The novelty from the fluctuating space between covert action and public knowledge, the decline of state secrecy and the rise of multiple competing narratives churned about across a kaleidoscopic social media landscape. 

Complicating matters further, covert action exists in relation to other actors. It nudges along internal forces in the target state — dissidents, revolutionaries, and opposition parties — sometimes with a mere fleeting touch. It is incredibly difficult for observers, even those with full access to classified material, to isolate the impact of the hidden hand in places such as Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere. Or whether Russia made the decisive difference in the election of Donald Trump.

Consequently, our knowledge of it is constructed through so many different filters: from James Bond to memoirs to selected declassifications of once top-secret documents. Covert actions are told through stories or myths, which can then become as important as the actual events they represent.

This is so much more than intellectual pontification. Recent events, from Hong Kong to Venezuela to Ukraine, show that these representations of reality have real-world consequences. 

First, collective memories of Cold War covert operations shape — or constrain — operations today. On top of the US and China cases above, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s supporters talked up the Cold War parallels of her own apparent dive into efforts to counter Russian propaganda.

Second, too many leaders see covert action as a discreet risk-free option to solve intractable problems. They might take Hollywood stories such as Charlie Wilson’s War to heart and then lobby to support resistance in Afghanistan or, when it looked like Kyiv would fall, to support resistance in Ukraine. Alternatively, drunk on the myths of Die Hard 4.0 and the promise of a cyber 9/11, they might assume there is some sort of big red button to launch cyber-attacks. 

Third, narratives overplaying potency and success do the adversary’s dirty work for them. Hype can turn inconsequential second-rate operations into virulent successes. When the aims of propaganda are to spread confusion and undermine trust in democracy, then success counterintuitively thrives on the oxygen of publicity. Exposure can make the adversary – whether Putin’s disinformation or Xi’s covert political influence – look more powerful than it actually is. So often, covert operations work simply because we think they work; believing in success is to affirm success

This interplay between past and present, between story and reality, is important. How we write about historical covert actions impacts upon grey zone competition today. This might be through constraining or stimulating current operations, through providing ‘whataboutism’ ammunition for hostile states and their supporters, or through creating an assumption that more is going on today than is actually the case.

Like it or not, in this world of secrecy, this hall of mirrors, how we narrate covert statecraft impacts upon its use and even its success.

Rory Cormac

Rory Cormac is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His research specialises in covert action and secret intelligence. He appears regularly on television and radio, and has written four books, most recently Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy.

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