Fighting in the Shadows


You know you are old when they start making period dramas about a decade when you were alive. One of the policy tensor’s guilty pleasures is watching a late Cold War-era espionage drama called The Americans. To someone with my interests, all that great power intrigue is irresistible; more so than usual because it is quite credible. It got me thinking about the following question: how does a state deter hostile covert actions by a great power adversary? And more generally, how does the balance of power operate in the shadows?

As far as I can tell, this question has not been investigated by scholars. It is not entirely impossible that theoretical work on this question is classified. That may explain why there is no open source paper on the subject. Although I reckon that it is extremely unlikely to be the case since even more sensitive questions are routinely discussed in academic journals. For instance, the closely related question of congressional oversight of intelligence agencies is the subject of considerable debate. This lacunae is perplexing, to say the least. Perhaps scholars have simply overlooked this question so far. This short essay is just a first pass at the issues at stake.

How does deterrence work against covert operations by rival powers? The central problem is, of course, uncertainty and deniability. Let’s say one of your key scientists working on a promising military technology is assassinated in a car bombing. The most important question that needs to be answered is: who ordered the strike? Even in a bipolar system the answer may not be the obvious one. For instance, during the Cold War, if the target were American, it would be difficult for the US government to be certain that it was a KGB operation and not, say, the handiwork of Islamist terrorists or the Iranians. How, then, can the United States deter the Soviet Union from wreaking havoc in the shadows?

The most obvious response by states faced with covert threats is to enhance their espionage and counterintelligence capabilities. Careful analysis can provide some insight about the origin of covert strikes. For instance, terrorists with revolutionary aims are quite unlikely to not claim responsibility since their primary aim is to broadcast their message. Similarly, the choice of targets could point directly to separatists and others who may have an incentive to destabilize the target state. The sophistication of the operation may rule out all but the most capable intelligence agencies. Covert attacks sometimes carry telltale signatures. Non-state actors have very limited capabilities: they can successfully carry out only certain kinds of operations and not others. Forensic analysis can provide vital clues to solve the puzzle. Yet, such efforts may be largely unsuccessful in identifying the perpetrators. The most likely outcome of such investigation is that some potential sources of trouble may be ruled out, whilst leaving a fairly large number of adversaries in suspicion.

Targeted states can choose to retaliate-in-kind. If the origin of the strike or the source of the threat can be identified with some certainty, states can respond by deploying their own assets against the adversary. This requires the acquisition of offensive covert capabilities. European great powers, especially Great Britain, had been playing this game for a very long time of course. The scale of the Soviet operation itself grew up in response to western efforts after 1917 to destabilize the nascent revolutionary state. Until World War II, the United States’ intelligence apparatus was rudimentary. During the war, covert operations of the Western allies were run by the British. It was quite late in the war, when the extensive covert operations of the Soviet Union came to light, that the United States significantly stepped up its own efforts in the shadows. Initially, these were mostly intelligence gathering operations. Listening posts close to Soviet territory and other aspects of signal intelligence were the first to develop.

Offensive US covert capabilities were quickly developed thereafter to counter existing Soviet capabilities. The Soviets soon responded by stepping up their own efforts. The dynamic of the escalating ‘arms race’ in the shadows was in this respect very similar to the conventional and nuclear arms race between the two adversaries in the Cold War. But the similarities between the three spheres end there. Whereas mutual nuclear deterrence works with near certainty and conventional deterrence works well under certain conditions, the prospects for deterrence in the shadows are much bleaker. Not only is it hard to determine who ordered covert operations, even knowing who did it may not be of much help if retaliatory capabilities don’t exist. If retaliation-in-kind is not viable or seen to be insufficient to deter, a state fearing hostile covert action can threaten to escalate. In that case, successful deterrence depends on the military balance between the adversaries.

If the state enjoys conventional superiority against the adversary, it can punish the adversary by limited military action. After the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin by Libyan intelligence in 1986, the US carried out medium-scale airstrikes against Libya. Similarly, responding to the alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George HW Bush in 1993, the Clinton administration launched punitive airstrikes against the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence. If the state does not enjoy conventional military superiority against the adversary, the threat to carry out punitive military action may not be credible. Iran threatened to respond aggressively to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists by Mossad. Given the balance of power between Israel and Iran, the threat wasn’t credible and failed to deter Israel, which continued to carry on with its assassination program.

Even if the state enjoys conventional superiority, nuclear deterrence may make threats to escalate non-credible. Following the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament by militants alleged to be on the payroll of Pakistani intelligence, India amassed 700,000 troops on the Pakistani border; to no avail. Given the balance of terror, India’s threat to escalate was not credible. Note that this is due entirely to the compactness of Pakistani territory. Since the Pakistani capital is merely two hundred miles from the Indian border, even a small border incursion is a strategic threat to Pakistan, and a nuclear response always remains a real possibility. Contrast that with India’s northeast: China can take over the region by a limited military incursion without triggering a nuclear response from India.

The options against peer competitors are much narrower. Threats to escalate are not be credible under conditions of military parity and nuclear stalemate. This means that great powers locked in cold wars with each other need to expend more and more resources on espionage and counterespionage capabilities. With war banished from the center of international politics by the rise of nuclear weapons, all the action moves to the shadows. As the cold war periodically heats up and cools down, the rise and fall in temperature will be felt most immediately in the covert sphere. Cold War intrigue was, in this sense, the natural counterpart to the stability of the bipolar world.