Few U.S. government activities are as controversial as covert action.
Americans may disagree about the specifics of trade policy or defense
spending, but covert action is controversial to the core. Many covert
operations, if carried out by different persons and under other
circumstances, would be plainly and seriously criminal. The process
for reviewing and approving such operations tests the limits of
democracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that while some officials
and pundits are firmly of the opinion that we need to maintain covert
action as an option, others insist that the United States has no
business carrying out such operations in any circumstances.
Because the United States and the Soviet Union are no longer
competing in Third World proxy wars, the rationale for most
traditional covert action has disappeared. However, new threats such
as terrorism and proliferation may sometimes require the United
States to consider going down that road. This is especially true in
the Information Age. On the one hand, hostile parties will likely
target our communications systems, computers, and data bases; and on
the other, the United States will have the opportunity to enhance its
security by using these technologies to its own advantage, possibly
Unfortunately, there are many indications that the United States is
not adequately prepared to perform in this new context for covert
- Most of the public, and many officials, apparently do not
understand what covert action really is. As a result, they do not
understand when it is effective, when it is not, and the costs that
acting covertly imposes.
- Recent covert action failures suggest that as far as understanding
the usefulness and limitations of covert action, ignorance extends to
many U.S. officials.
- The effectiveness of U.S. intelligence oversight institutions
within the legislative branch is questionable.
The Concept Defined
Should the United States be prepared to carry out covert action? Is
it ever necessary, or can we dispense with it completely?
During the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy officials often turned to
covert action as a "middle option." Diplomatic pressure against an
uncooperative, hostile power such as the Soviet Union was deemed
ineffective. Military action, especially when the Soviets had
overwhelming forces in Europe and (after 1949) the atomic bomb, was
too risky. By default, then, covert action emerged as a prudent
alternative to doing nothing. In the early years of the Cold War,
too, U.S. leaders tended to think about covert action in terms of
their World War II experience. The CIA's predecessor, the Office of
Strategic Services, had run extensive commando raids and
psychological operations during the war. While there were skeptics,
many U.S. leaders thought that the OSS had been effective. As well as
this precedent, after the war U.S. leaders became increasingly
concerned about the Soviet Union's own covert operations, and most
reasoned that the United States needed similar capabilities.
Unfortunately for the cause of conceptual clarity, "covert action"
quickly became synonymous with the kinds of operations the United
States carried out under this label during the Cold War--paramilitary
operations, propaganda, political action, and the like. This has
confused discussions about covert action ever since, because,
essentially, covert action properly understood has less to do with
the operations themselves than with how they are carried out.
Covert action is, plain and simple, any activity in which the United
States conceals its responsibility. Because so many writers, pundits,
and commentators fail to understand this, they never address the
single most important question pertaining to the subject: When should
an action be conducted covertly? Or to put it slightly differently,
when and why should the United States act in a deniable fashion?
To underline this point, note that most of the operations that have
been carried out as covert action in the past have also been carried
out overtly in other situations. For example:
* Paramilitary operations. In the early 1960s the CIA covertly
supported the anti-communist Hmong in Laos. In the 1980s the United
States provided intermittent overt support to the Nicaraguan Contras.
* Propaganda. From their founding in the early 1950s through 1971,
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were covertly funded by the CIA.
Voice of America, which has a roughly similar function and has
usually carried the same message, has always been overtly sponsored
by the U.S. government.
* Exerting political and economic influence. In 1948 the CIA provided
covert assistance to the Christian Democratic Party in the Italian
national election. Today the National Endowment for Democracy
provides overt U.S. assistance to pro-democracy organizations abroad.
* Assassination. The United States tried to kill Fidel Castro in the
1960s, with the CIA using mafia figures as surrogates. In 1986 the
United States carried out an air strike against Libya in retaliation
for a terrorist attack, specifically targeting the tent in which
Muammar Qaddafi was known to sleep, and taking no great pains to hide
* Coups. In 1953 the CIA covertly fomented public demonstrations
against the Mossadeq regime in Iran to assist the Shah to reclaim his
throne. In 1986 the United States openly supported Corazon Aquino's
"People Power" demonstrations against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos
in the Philippines.
In each of these examples the operations were similar, but some were
conducted covertly and others not. The point is this: Americans may
question whether the U.S. government should support coups, meddle in
foreign elections, or kill foreign leaders, but the nature of these
activities is a separate issue from whether the United States should
carry them out covertly. Understanding that deniability is the single
distinguishing feature of covert action is absolutely necessary if
there is to be useful discussion of this topic. In its turn,
deniability raises two crucial issues. First, when is covertness
essential for the success of an operation? Second, what are the
implications of deniable policies for a democratic government?
During the Cold War and even today, U.S. officials have often paid
more attention to the advantages of covertness than to its costs.
Covertness seems to add flexibility because officials do not need to
explain their policy to the public or to allies. It also entails
review by fewer members of Congress and thus seems more expedient.
There is, however, a price to be paid for such benefits. There is
always a cost when other governments and the public ultimately find
out that they have been left out of the loop. They may voice approval
of an operation after the fact, but whether they admit it or not,
those who were misled or not informed will trust the U.S. government
less from then on. Sometimes the benefits outweigh the loss of trust,
but no one should fool himself into thinking that this cost is zero.
It never is.
There are other costs. Many of the benefits of the Information
Revolution are a result of our ability to use fluid, networked, open
organizations. Networks allow people to exchange ideas and
information more easily. This increases creativity. Networks also
improve the opportunity for scrutiny by outsiders, and are better at
drawing on new talent and ideas as needed. Covert action has the
opposite effect. By its very nature, covert action limits the number
of people and organizations who can contribute to an operation, or
participate in a sanity check with regard to it.
There are only two legitimate reasons for carrying out an operation
covertly rather than overtly. One is when open knowledge of U.S.
responsibility would make an operation infeasible. For example, if
Italian voters had known that the CIA was financing the Christian
Democratic Party in 1948, the Communists would have successfully
painted the Christian Democrats as U.S. lackeys, and CIA support
would have backfired. If an operation is at all feasible without such
deniability, the argument for covertness is much harder--and often
The other valid reason for carrying out an operation covertly is to
avoid retaliation or to control the potential for escalation. The
fact that such covertness is sometimes no more than a fig leaf does
not necessarily alter the fact that it is a useful fig leaf. In the
late 1940s, for example, the Soviet government knew that the CIA was
supporting resistance fighters in the Ukraine, since Soviet
intelligence had penetrated most of the groups. Similarly, the Soviet
leadership knew that the United States was supporting the Afghan
mujaheddin in the 1980s. If U.S. leaders had admitted responsibility,
Soviet leaders would have felt it necessary to retaliate, as was the
case when President Eisenhower owned up to U-2 overflights in 1960,
with the result that Khrushchev felt compelled to cancel the Paris
summit meeting. Also in the case of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union
could have struck at U.S. allies, perhaps with military action.
Pakistan provided a base for the U.S. covert action in Afghanistan.
Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia provided arms and
materiel. All of these countries wanted to avoid a direct
confrontation with the Soviet Union, and covertness helped persuade
them that they could do so.
The goal of averting retaliation is important when deciding whether
to carry out an operation covertly. If covertness will not avert
retaliation (or if openness will not attract it), much of the
rationale for covert action disappears.