Carson, Austin. Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018. 344 pages. Hardcover, $35.00.
Of all the activities carried out by the intelligence community, none is more controversial than covert action (CA). CA is a political tool used by governments to change the course of history or political events in a country. One of the key goals of CA is the plausibility of deniability. If or when a CA is uncovered, who carried out, and who authorized it should never be attributed to the President. Given its utility and its secrecy, CA continues to be a topic of interest and controversy. In this ground breaking work, Austin Carson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, shows that adversaries often collude with each other to keep war in the shadows and off the escalation ladder.
Carson's main thesis is that escalation control and a shared desire to limit war can motivate covert intervention up front, collusion by major powers that detect it, and official non-acknowledgment if it is widely exposed (pg. 10). Carson's theory called the large-scale conflict escalation a mutually damaging outcome that is influenced by exposure decisions. As Carson explains, covertness and reactive secrecy are driven by the need to control escalation and avoid large-escalation conflict (pg. 3). As Carson succinctly explains, when escalation risks are significant, adversaries will tend to share an interest in prioritizing control. External military involvement in a local war raises the prospect of expansion in scope and scale. Intervening covertly, according to Carson, allows both the intervener and its rivals to better control the unfolding scenario following the intervention (pg. 3). Two key ideas in Carson's large-scale conflict escalation theory are secrecy and covertness. Carson operationalizes secrecy as "an intentional concealment of information from one or more audiences, [as] simply one way of making decisions and behaving in the world" (pg. 5). Covertness, on the other hand, is defined as
"government-managed activity conducted with the intention of concealing the sponsor's role and avoiding acknowledgment of it" (pg. 5).
Covert action usually raises a host of issues including, but not limited to, blowback, plausibility of deniability, and attribution. But, what happens if an operation is discovered? Carson points out that, when or if an operation is discovered, any detector...