Pluto Press Logo




On the Blog

The Covert Colour Line

The Covert Colour Line

The Racialised Politics of Western State Intelligence

by Oliver Kearns

An innovative theory of state intelligence

Repeated intelligence failures in Iraq, Libya and across the Middle East and North Africa have left many critics searching for a smoking gun. Amidst questions of who misread - or manipulated - the intel, a fundamental truth goes unaddressed: western intelligence is not designed to understand the world. In fact, it cannot.

In The Covert Colour Line, Oliver Kearns shows how the catastrophic mistakes made by British and US intelligence services since 9/11 are underpinned by orientalist worldviews and racist assumptions forged in the crucible of Cold War-era colonial retreat. Understanding this historical context is vital to explaining why anglophone state intelligence is unable to grasp the motives and international solidarities of 'adversaries'.

Offering a new way of seeing how intelligence contributes to world inequalities, and drawing on a wealth of recently declassified materials, Kearns argues that intelligence agencies' imagination of 'non-Western' states and geopolitics fundamentally shaped British intelligence assessments which would underpin the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent interventions.

Oliver Kearns is a research fellow with SPIN, the Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network, at the University of Bristol, UK. He studies how state secrecy, from drone strikes to spy radio frequencies, shapes the legitimation of violence. He also writes experimental electronic music.

'Raises a fascinating question: what if the biggest failures of intelligence are not the factual errors, but the inbuilt biases that shape what types of information is deemed useful, or even legible, to the state?'

- Lisa Stampnitzky, Lecturer of Politics at the University of Sheffield, UK, and author of 'Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism”'

'A ground-breaking contribution to the field. Elegantly written, the book decodes a plethora of declassified documents showing the racialised assumptions underlying the use and abuse of intelligence in contemporary Western politics. This is a must-read for anyone interested in democratic politics, recent armed conflicts in the Middle East or asymmetrical global power relations'

- Dr. Elisabeth Schweiger, Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of York, UK

'Your jaw will drop and your heart will break. We urgently need this reckoning with the role of race-thinking in international politics. Lives depend on it'

- Gargi Bhattacharyya

'A ground-breaking analysis revealing how Western intelligence failures are not isolated incidents but symptomatic of a racialised imagination of other societies as 'ignorant, emotional, and illogical', ultimately threatening peace and maintaining inequality. Essential reading for anyone interested in how intelligence is made, (mis)used and underpins international relations'

- Owen David Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Exeter and founding member of the Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network (SPIN)

List of figures
Acronyms and Abbreviations
Introduction: Ukraine, Iraq, and the failure of intelligence failure
1. Whispering geopolitics in a decolonising world
2. Dragons and tigers and bears, oh my: The invention of the mirror-image problem
Part Two
3. Getting to know Saddam Hussein
4. 'They buried things in the sand': The threat of Iraq and the secret of race
Conclusion: Libya, the Arab Spring, and the success of intelligence failure

Published by Pluto Press in Apr 2023
Paperback ISBN: 9780745347301
eBook ISBN: 9780745347325

140mm x 216mm