Dr Oliver Kearns

Lecturer in Intelligence and Security Studies

Oliver Kearns profile

School/Department: History, Politics and International Relations, School of


Address: ATT 1004 Attenborough Tower University Road Leicester LE1 7RH


I joined the School of History Politics and International Relations in 2023. Before that, I was an ESRC New Investigators senior research associate at the University of Bristol. I am a co-founder of SPIN, the Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network, and am an honorary SPIN research associate.

Outside of my research on sound, I am an experimental electronic musician. My latest work is Amelioration on Aphelion Editions.


I study forms of secrecy, particularly around state violence, and how political acts of keeping-things-secret or being-secretive spill out into the public world and shape our imagination of what goes on in the dark.

I am currently researching the role of sound and listening in state secrecy over the last century, from propaganda programmes designed to discourage ‘careless talk’, to short-wave radio messages sent to spies from the Cold War to today. How has this kind of secrecy shaped public space and culture in a post-colonial world? Who has been judged to ‘sound suspicious’ or to be a good eavesdropper? And what happens when extreme weather and climate change disrupt secret frequencies?

I have also recently published a book, The Covert Colour Line, on the role of race-thinking in Anglophone intelligence services. At the end of the Second World War, when the US’ CIA and Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee were looking for a new purpose, millions rose up in the colonised world to challenge the post-war order. The book traces how, over decades, intelligence agents defined these political movements and independent governments as irrational, and tried to keep Britain and the US’ colonial system alive. I use recently-declassified documents to demonstrate how this racist way of thinking shaped the intelligence analysis that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Finally, I am working on another book project on covert action during the so-called War on Terror, its secrecy and conspicuous absences, and its connection to mid-twentieth century lynching in the United States.



The Covert Colour Line: The racialised politics of Western state intelligence (London and New York: Pluto Press, 2023)

  • "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
  • "[O]ffers a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on the intricate relationship between intelligence, geopolitics, and world inequalities [...] a vital contribution to the discourse surrounding intelligence failures" - Dilara Özer, Politics Today
  • "The Covert Colour Line, then, is quite an indictment. It is passionately written and cohesively assembled [...] the book’s central thesis about racialised thinking is forensically untangled and repeatedly demonstrated" - Martin Thomas, E-International Relations
  • "With The Covert Colour Line, Kearns provides an enormously well informed and meticulously researched look at the role of Western intelligence agencies [...] If an accurate understanding of capitalism and imperialism is neither useful nor possible for those who seek to defend and justify those systems, it is most certainly in the interests of those who challenge them [...] On that basis, he’s written a very valuable book for those who can handle the truth" - John Clarke, New Politics
  • Book launch (podcast available) with Professor Brian Rappert, Dr Claudia Hillebrand and Dr Shuk Ying Chan, hosted by SPIN: Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network, University of Bristol, 28 April 2023

Journal articles

Forget what you hear: Careless Talk, espionage and ways of listening in on the British secret state. Review of International Studies, 48(2), 2022.

Beyond enclosure: Military bases and the spatial dynamics of secrecy. Geoforum, 127, 2021.

Toward critical approaches to intelligence as a social phenomenon. With Hager Ben Jaffel, Alvina Hoffmann and Sebastian Larsson. International Political Sociology, 14(3), 2020.

Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes. Political Geography, 57, 2017.

State secrecy, public assent, and representational practices of U.S. covert action. Critical Studies on Security, 4(3), 2016.

Notorious places: Image, reputation, stigma. The role of newspapers in area reputations for social housing estates. With Ade Kearns and Louise Lawson. Housing Studies, 28(4), 2013.


Public commentary

In Conversation with Elspeth Van Veeren on secrecy and the audible. SPIN: Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network Podcast, 11 July 2019.

Public "traces" of drone strikes are reshaping what it means to witness warfare. LSE USAPP-American Politics and Policy, 15 March 2017.


I am interested in supervising doctoral candidates around the following topics, do email me with your ideas:

  • Secrecy and state violence ('the secret state', strategic ignorance, covert operations...)
  • Race and racial thinking in security and intelligence (Orientalism in policy, the global colour line, genealogies of intelligence and security ideas...)
  • Sound and listening in international politics (the history of listening habits, sonic practices in international security, using sound archives...)
  • Post/colonial lineages of counter-terrorism (historical comparisons, lynching and other forms of racial terrorism, colonial counter-insurgencies and their echoes today...)


In the spring semester of 2024, I am teaching on the following courses:

  • PL2018 International Security Studies
  • PL7095 Global Ethics in Practice
  • PL7589 The Politics of Human Rights

If any student on these courses wishes to talk about them with me, my office hours are Tuesday 2-3pm and Thursday 11am-12pm.

Press and media

I am happy to discuss any of the following:

- Secrecy and state violence

- the War on Terror and its colonial legacies

- Covert operations (drones, special forces, intelligence)

- Sound, listening and politics

Media coverage

- 'Explaining Israel's 'Intelligence Failure' on Hamas', interview with Nyki Duda, The Progressive magazine, 30 January 2024:

- Book Launch: The Covert Colour Line, SPIN: Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network podcast, 26 June 2023:

- 'In conversation: Oliver Kearns and Elspeth Van Veeren on secrecy and the audible', SPIN: Secrecy Power and Ignorance Network podcast, 21 November 2019:

- 'Public “traces” of drone strikes are reshaping what it means to witness warfare', LSE USAPP blog, 15 March 2017:

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