Out of the shadows: understanding, researching and teaching covert action

Did Russia influence the US 2016 elections? Were Russia’s intelligence agencies involved? Since the US election, spies, espionage and covert action are back on the front pages. As a case in point, a day after his inauguration, US President Donald Trump gave a speech at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA. In the speech, he suggested that the CIA had not received enough ‘backing’ in its fight against terrorism. Since 9/11, however, the CIA, as well as its British counter-part, MI6 have played a leading role in the fight against terrorism. Their powers and capabilities have expanded and this has included an increased reliance on covert action.

Covert action has a long history in both Britain and the US. The term often refers to intelligence activities that go beyond the simple collection of information. These activities are aimed at influencing political, economic, or military conditions abroad and include propaganda, economic action, paramilitary operations (including regime change), and lethal actions (such as assassinations and/or targeted killing).


In academia, the interdisciplinary nature of covert action has often meant that researchers working on the topic have found it difficult to share research and experiences. Furthermore, the ‘sensitive’ nature of the topic has often meant that covert action is not discussed in schools and is not considered part of the curriculum. Pupils learn about issues surrounding the evolution of warfare, powers of Presidents and Prime Ministers, Cold War and decolonisation; and yet, intelligence, espionage and covert action are not discussed. There clear is an ‘intelligence gap’ in the schools curricula.

This project is funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award. The project has three main aims. First, the project aims at establishing a network of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working on covert action in US and UK history. This network will provide an opportunity to share research and discuss developments in the discipline. Second, the project aims at engaging teachers and students from secondary schools in the study of the topic. Finally, the project aims at establishing a longer-term collaboration with schools. This will include seminars and presentations conducted by ECRs in interested schools and essay writing competitions.

The project so far

In May, we had our first Out of the Shadows Project workshop. The workshop was designed as an opportunity for the network of early career researchers and senior academics to meet, and discuss how their areas of expertise can be delivered to secondary school students and supplement subjects on the existing GCE and A-level curricula. In advance of the workshop, participants were provided with copies of the GCE and A-level curricula for England and Wales and asked to consider how their research could support the existing courses. The resulting papers outlined participants’ ongoing research projects, and explored the ways in which this research could be brought to secondary schools. Research presentations included Dr Rory Cormac on the British Way of Covert action, Chris Hoekstra on Special Operation forces, Francesca Akhtar on the history of the DIA, William Carruthers on cyber covert action and others. The final round-table included contributions from Dr Simon Willmetts, Dr Claire Hubbard-Hall, Dr Vladimir Rauta and Josh Niderost from the Political Studies Association (PSA). Overall, the expertise of the gathered participants can directly supplement a number of areas on the existing school curriculum, including:

1) The development of warfare – the evolution of tactics, strategy, technology, and the role of women in war,

2) History of the Cold War and specialist knowledge in overlooked, niche subject areas

3) The conventional and unconventional history of the Vietnam War

4) Global political affairs

5) US and UK domestic and international politics

6) US and UK history including colonisation and decolonisation.

The project going forward

We have two events lined up in June. Dr Luca Trenta and Lloyd Hopkins (PhD candidate at Swansea University) will deliver two workshops on covert action and electoral interference at Bishop Vaughan School. We are working on a training and CPD event for teachers in September. The event will include research presentations from academics and PhD students, and working groups to develop lesson plans.

In October, we will deliver a Workshop at the National Assembly for Wales on the origins of British and US intelligence. The workshop will be run in collaboration with the think tank Gorwel. The project will also be part of the Being Human: Festival of the Humanities

In the meantime, if you want to know more, you can visit our website (outoftheshadowsproject.com), follow us on Twitter @OotsProject, listen to our first podcast episode (available on SoundCloud, on our website and on iTunes) and you can share the project with your friends and colleagues.






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