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Research interests

My work explores how states think about and maintain different kinds of secrecy - particularly around their use of violence abroad - and how their efforts leave traces in the public sphere that shape both the secret practices themselves and popular ideas and feelings about what the state does in the dark.

I am currently finishing a book which argues that United States and British intelligence analysis since the Second World War represents an emergency intellectual response to decolonization. National liberation movements and post-colonial governments posed an enormous challenge because they rejected the idea that Britain and the U.S. had the right to sit at the top of international hierarchies of wealth and power. Those two states' intelligence agencies saw their job as not to give objective analysis but to defend their states' privilege, to maintain the inequality of the postwar world. Analysts used ideas of race and culture to develop an image of the Middle East in particular as having an internal logic, a certain way-of-working, that justified a continued British and U.S. presence. In analysts' view, the region's newly-independent nations just didn't get how this logic worked due to their secretive, insular political cultures. The book concludes that these ideas shaped intelligence assessments of Saddam Hussein and Iraq up to the 2003 invasion. Intelligence's problem was not simply their false belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; it was that they thought Saddam represented an irrational Arab mindset that would never accept the supposed legitimacy of Western superiority.

My other ongoing research, previously funded at Bristol by an ESRC New Investigators grant, examines numbers stations - shortwave radio transmissions, existing for decades, used to send coded messages to spies abroad. These transmissions involve automated voices, musical interludes and white noise. They remain virtually unbreakable but exist in public, being detectable by anyone with a shortwave radio. I am researching the global history and geopolitics of numbers stations' use, and how these sounds reproduce the secret state within public space as something one can 'listen in' on. This forms part of a broader project to trace the links between secrecy, sound and state-making over the last century. I recently spoke about this research on the SPIN podcast series: https://anchor.fm/spin-research/episodes/In-conversation-Oliver-Kearns-and-Elspeth-Van-Veeren-on-secrecy-and-the-audible-e947ht.

In my previous doctoral work, which I am continuing to build upon, I examine the public traces of unseen covert action during the Obama and Trump years of the 'War on Terror'. From drone strikes to special forces raids, secret counter-terrorism leaves behind all sorts of remains, from smoke and rubble to rumours and speculation. This residue can end up undermining state narratives for violence by hinting at unspoken possibilities about what happened. At the same time, these hints can shift the focus away from those at the receiving end of this violence. I use colonial historiography and the writings of W.G. Sebald to argue for a link between this covert counter-terrorism and secretive lynchings in the U.S. a century earlier: in both cases, violence is interpreted as disturbing because hard to comprehend, narrowing the kind of ethical questions asked of it. I link this analysis to the broader issue of the ethical stakes of witnessing distant violence today.

Keywords

  • secrecy
  • intelligence studies
  • sound studies
  • war and media
  • counter-terrorism
  • post-colonialism

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