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Pinpricks: MI6’s Approach to Covert Action in the Early Cold War

By Rory Cormac

Covert action represents the shadowy underbelly of international relations. It encompasses the dark arts of foreign policy; a key asset, but rarely acknowledged.

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, covert action is active and seeks to shape events itself. It seeks to elicit change in the behaviour of a target.

Such activity is generally associated with the Americans – and the CIA. It is important to remember, however, that Britain engaged in deniable attempts to manipulate events overseas too.Famous examples include the failed attempt to overthrow the Communist regime in Albania in the late 1940s, followed by the successful coup against the Iranian Prime Minister in 1953. Less famous examples include special operations against Yemeni Republicans during the civil war in the 1960s.

It is an exciting time to be studying the British approach to such activity. Snowden’s documents remind us that it still goes on in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, new archival releases are shedding fascinating insight on activity during the Cold War and decolonisation.

Using recent archival releases, we now know what happened in the aftermath of the failure to ‘liberate’ Albania.

Rather than shy away from covert activity, Britain actually increased the number of operations sanctioned. Given the undoubted failure, however, these operations took on a more subtle nature.

Known as the pinprick approach, Britain sought to use covert operations to gradually chip away at Soviet control. The approach sought to

  • Exploit weaknesses;
  • Target the economy;
  • Promote dissension;
  • Spread distrust.

Limited strikes against select targets in individual countries would, it was hoped, sow the seeds of dissension. The aim was not liberation (although the UK remained keen to maintain a spirit of resistance behind the Iron Curtain) but gradually to make the satellite states a liability rather than an asset and to make things as difficult as possible for the Communist Governments.

For MI6, pinpricks, pilot schemes, and experiments were the way forward.

These ideas were developed by the head of MI6, Stewart Menzies, (known as C) alongside Whitehall’s most senior Cold Warriors. This group, the Official Committee on Communism (Overseas), was maintained at the highest levels of secrecy. Its existence has only recently been uncovered.

Proposed activities behind the Iron Curtain included:

Establishing fake dissident groups to distribute clandestine propaganda designed to mislead and confuse;

  • Encouraging a ‘go slow’ campaign within East Germany industry;
  • Whispering campaigns to undermine and compromise Communist officials;

More aggressive special operations, such as sabotage, kidnap, and assassination, were ruled out. They were too risky and could escalate into open war.

The approach was approved by Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, and Ernest Bevin, his Foreign Secretary, in 1950. It went on to influence the Conservative government’s covert activities in Europe too.

Whitehall’s top secret approach was tentative, incremental, and run by a committee—a very British attitude towards covert action.

Rory’s article on this topic has been published in the Journal of Cold War Studies.

He tweets on intelligence and covert action: @rorycormac

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons 

Published inConflict & SecurityIntelligenceInternational RelationsSecret Intelligence and Covert Action

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