Interview with Dr. Rory Cormac on his new book, How to Stage a Coup

This week, The Footnote interviewed renowned author, professor, and Intelligence historian Rory Cormac about his newest book: How To Stage A Coup: And Ten Other Lessons from the World of Secret Statecraft. The book systematically exposes the gray zone in our post-truth era of implausible deniability and ambiguous warfare. Cormac flawlessly integrates discussions of recent events with historic case studies to provide thoughtful insights on the range of tools states use in covert action on a global scale. Moreover, Cormac presents a series of important factors to account for in the changing technological landscape and the media, combined with the rise of private military companies and mercenaries like Russia’s Wagner group. From how to assassinate your enemies to how to get away with murder or rig an election, this book provides a thoroughly riveting overview of covert action. 

What inspired you to write How to Stage a Coup

Rory Cormac: There has been so much discussion over the past five to six years on the secret world, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, the alleged US sponsorship of the Color Revolutions, and recent covert action in places like Syria. I wanted to write a book that could get behind these headlines and understand what covert action really is. Is propaganda linked to coups, is it all part of the same thing? If it is meant to be secret, then why is it in the news? I wanted to unpack all of this and get to the heart of it. Specifically, to provide an explainer for a public audience, to get to the core of why states do it and pin down whether it works. 

In the book, you describe how “covert action is hard to pin down; it evades understanding”—so how do you overcome the “mental gray zone” of uncertainty in your research process? 

RC: First, there is a lot more material out there than people realize: America dominates the history books, and the CIA, in fairness, declassifies a lot of materials concerning US covert action. The UK declassifies a lot less. There is a growing literature on covert actions by other states, regarding France for example, there is also a lot of information coming out concerning digital authoritarianism in the Gulf. The really challenging thing is not about finding the sources but pinning the facts down. It presents an epistemological challenge. For instance, how do you separate the hidden hand of the CIA from internal forces? How do you isolate the impact? What becomes most important are perceptions of success and how we narrate these histories. Rather than completely neglect agency and assume that internal people are manipulated by subversive foreign actors, we need to analyze the interplay between external and internal forces. The inherently secret nature of covert action certainly provides an intellectual challenge, but one worth pursuing. 

How is Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) changing attitudes towards secrecy, and how will this impact the future of covert operations? 

RC: It is certainly becoming more difficult to operate secretly as a result of OSINT. Investigative journalist groups like Bellingcat, make it more difficult to operate in the shadows. However, secrecy is often overrated anyway. We look back at history with a false sense of nostalgic secrecy. We look back at the 1950s and we think of this golden age of covert action where the CIA were operating with beautiful plausible deniability and they could do whatever they wanted and no one knew, we contrast this now with OSINT, where you can no longer seemingly operate as secretly. This distinction is overblown and many of the classic covert actions in the 1950s and 1960s were actually pretty implausibly deniable. A lot of them were narrated in real time. The 1953 coup in Iran, a supposed covert action success, where the CIA and MI6 engineered Mohammad Mosaddegh’s removal is a prime example. Mossaddegh found out what was going on early on, and expelled British diplomats the year before– this was not secret. In Guatemala in 1954, it was so obvious that the CIA was orchestrating a coup that a second covert operation called PBHistory the year after to try to manage the narrative around the coup and demonstrate that the Guatemalan government had been under the Soviet Union’s influence had to be undertaken. Even propaganda operations in the 1950s which were supposedly more secretive than big bang coups and secret wars, were being narrated almost in real time. We need to be careful not to overplay this distinction between an Age of Secrecy versus an Age of (Un)secrecy. Clearly, however, it is still difficult to operate secretly, and yet covert actions have not gone away. We have to assume that leaders are quite happy to embrace implausible deniability and embrace the ambiguity that it brings. What we are going to see is more confusion and more ambiguity, leaders can no longer hide behind secrecy and so they are going to hide behind more noise. They are going to spew out more narratives, more contradictory nonsense, more confusion in which they can hide their signals more effectively. We are not going to see a decline in covert actions, but we are going to see much more confusion. There is a lot of historical continuity, as exploiting this inevitable ambiguity is not necessarily new; leaders have always exploited this ambiguity. 

How are the “dark arts” evolving in the 21st century and what are the implications for security today? 

RC: Things are moving to the online realm. However, it is ahistorical to say online covert action is revolutionary and is completely distinct from historical covert actions that go back hundreds of years. The big change is propaganda and influence operations are conducted online at a much faster tempo, with a much higher volume, and can reach much larger audiences to conduct mass attacks. This wider reach is very different from the height of the Cold War where you could not tailor to individual audiences or use mass data to micro-target your propaganda effort. If you wanted to make a forgery in the 1960s it took months to hunt down the exact brand of paper and staples that the other side was using to make it as convincing as possible. Nowadays, low-cost techniques, spamming at high volumes and seeing what sticks prevails. It is more accessible and less artistic to make forgeries. Propaganda, as historians know, goes back hundreds of years and the aim is to discredit, chip-away authority, sow confusion and find pre-existing fault lines and divisions to polarize audiences and people have been doing this since statecraft began. Propaganda in Stuart England mirrors the main problems we are talking about today, such as the post-truth world; how people were interpreting information through the prism of their own pre-existing belief systems, and through conspiracies, and how all of this was changing with modern technologies like the advent of the printing press. Here we see that there is much more continuity than there is change. 

During the course of your research, is there anything you found most interesting or surprising? 

RC: This may be naive, but the widespread scale of covert activities. The history books are dominated by what the CIA gets up to, then Russians come in close second, dominating current discussions thanks to Putin’s influence, assassinations, and belligerence. What struck me is the global game. How India and Pakistan have been launching covert actions against each other since their inception, how France has been engaged in this in post-imperial Africa, how Australia was involved in the 1973 coup in Chile, which we all associate with the CIA. Also, how Brazil was also involved independently in the 1973 coup in Chile– again, we think of the CIA, but the Brazilians were also engaged in launching their own operations and developing their own contacts with military generals as well. We see similar dynamics in Nigeria against Kenya, and Egypt as well. Covert action is a key and core part of international statecraft which all states engage with. 

Rory Cormac has published several books on Intelligence and Covert Action including, Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy and Confronting the Colonies: British Intelligence and Counterinsurgency. Also, by Rory Cormac and Richard J. Aldrich: The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown from Victoria to Diana; The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers; and Spying on the World: The Declassified Documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee, 1936-2013 (with Michael S. Goodman).

Rory Cormac was interviewed by Krystel von Kumberg on 3/27/23. The text has been edited by von Kumberg. She is studying Global, International, and Comparative History and graduated from the Security Studies Program at Georgetown (2020). She specializes in the roles of non-state actors; militarized social movements, terrorists, and militias in Europe and Russia. Her current research focuses on Cold War covert operations and terrorism.

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