The Logic of Covert Action

The Logic of Covert Action

Mini Teaser: 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

by Author(s): Bruce D. BerkowitzAllan E. Goodman

Saddam was indeed weakened, but not enough to bring him down.
Reflecting frustration that Saddam still endured--and that he could
still cause plenty of trouble, as with his chilling October 1994
military feint toward Kuwait--the character of the operation was
changed in 1995-96 to achieve faster results. Sources report that
President Clinton signed an order to provide arms and other
assistance to Iraqi groups seeking to overthrow Saddam. Other sources
add that some members of Congress also wanted the CIA to take
stronger action to that end. The CIA reportedly supported two kinds
of anti-Saddam initiatives during this period. One was an effort to
broadcast propaganda from Jordan into Iraq by expatriate opposition
organizations. The other was a more aggressive campaign involving the
use of force. This second effort embraced Iraqi military officers
opposed to Saddam, and two Kurdish nationalist groups: the Kurdish
Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

These CIA initiatives began to unravel in June 1996. Saddam had
penetrated the cabal of military officers plotting against him early
on and quickly foiled their plans. Then in late August, the operation
fell victim to internal Kurd rivalry. The KDP leader, Masoud Barzani,
turned against the PUK, inviting the Iraqi government to send its
forces into the Kurdish territories, where they crushed the
opposition. The CIA operation was routed. Iraqi authorities captured
dozens of agents who had been working for the CIA, as well as
computers and communications equipment that the United States had
supplied them.

Few Americans paid much attention to the collapse of the operation
and it was soon drowned out in the media by the 1996 presidential
elections. Not many U.S. personnel were involved, and as there was
little television footage available, the media quickly moved on to
new topics. But there should be no mistake--the covert operation in
Northern Iraq was a huge disaster, possibly the greatest covert
action debacle since Vietnam. All that was missing were helicopters
evacuating U.S. agents and allies from rooftops. According to the
press, more than one hundred Iraqi dissidents and military officers
cooperating with the United States were executed when Iraqi
intelligence forces rolled up the operation. Saddam also gained
invaluable information on U.S. intelligence tradecraft and the
organization of his opposition.

The United States suffered an enormous political setback. Having
relied on covert action because it was unwilling to confront Iraq
overtly, America appeared weak as well as naive in the wake of the
operation's failure. This failure doubtlessly contributed to the
subsequent decisions by Saudi Arabia and other states in the region
to distance themselves from Washington and to hedge in their
relations with Iraq. It may also explain in part Saudi Arabia's
reluctance to confront Iran over the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar
Towers in Dharan, which left nineteen Americans dead. As for Saddam,
having sized up his opponents and weakened its coalition, it was
reasonable for him to raise the stakes. The covert action fiasco was
probably a major factor in Saddam's decision to confront the United
States and its allies in late October and November 1997, when Iraq
demanded the ouster of the Americans among the UN weapons inspectors
and an end to economic sanctions.

Most important of all, the CIA's disastrous Iraq operation suggests
how poorly U.S. officials understand the problems entailed in covert
action and how to use such actions effectively. The U.S. effort in
Iraqi Kurdistan, as planned and executed after 1993, was a textbook
example of bad strategy and bad policy. It is hard to think of how a
program could have been more poorly conceived. It failed on at least
three different counts:

Failure #1: Poor strategic concept. The objective of the program was
to remove Saddam as a threat, yet all of the dynamics of the
situation favored Saddam. The United States was inherently limited in
the amount of support it could provide the Kurds. There are few
locales more remote from the United States than Kurdistan. The region
is virtually surrounded by Iran, Syria, and Iraq--all sworn enemies
of the United States. The only access is through Turkey, which, as we
shall see momentarily, presents its own problems. By 1996, the
coalition that had liberated Kuwait five years earlier had frayed
badly, and it had been difficult even to maintain support for
continuing UN economic sanctions on Iraq. Even more important, the
Kurds themselves were known to be badly split. The KDP and PUK were
rivals. Each was susceptible to an offer that would allow it to
prevail over its ostensible partner; the only question was the price
and timing of such an offer.

These factors ensured Iraq the dominant position as events unfolded.
As one opportunity after another presented itself, Iraq could
progressively ratchet the two Kurdish factions apart. Supporters of
the operation claim that the United States, with just a little more
money, might have held the Kurdish resistance together in the summer
of 1996. Maybe, maybe not. In any case Saddam would only have needed
to wait for another opportunity to peel off one of the factions, and
such an opportunity would have inevitably occurred.

Failure #2: Geopolitical simple-mindedness. Even if the Kurdish
operation had succeeded, it would have been inimical to other U.S.
interests in the region. The plan to increase the autonomy of the
Kurds, creating a de facto Kurdish state, was inconsistent with
broader U.S. policy toward Turkey, which strenuously opposes the
creation of an independent Kurdish state along its borders.

Moreover, if the covert operation had succeeded, its net result would
have been a permanently weaker Iraq. But most experts agree that
Iran, not Iraq, is the greater long-term concern in the region. This
is precisely why the United States limited the objectives of Desert
Storm to liberating Kuwait; U.S. leaders believed that a viable
united Iraq was necessary to counterbalance Iran. If a Kurdish
rebellion had succeeded in weakening the regime in Baghdad, we would
have also created a power vacuum in the region, and dealing with Iran
would have been more difficult than ever.

Failure #3: Deniability never made sense. The United States was never
able to keep the Iraq operation deniable. The program was thoroughly
compromised from the start. Kurdish leaders talked freely to the
press. More significantly, though, it is not even clear why
deniability was necessary.

The objective of the operation was to eliminate Saddam, and U.S.
officials acknowledged that there was a good probability that Saddam
would be killed in the process. The only reason for keeping the
operation covert would have been to preclude Iraq from striking back
at the United States or its allies. But after the Gulf War Saddam was
already determined to strike, no matter what the United States did.
Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, intimidate its
neighbors, and support terrorism (including a 1993 assassination
attempt against former President Bush). In short, whether Saddam had
evidence of U.S. involvement in a coup was essentially irrelevant.
Covertness offered few advantages.

With so many flaws, how was such a poorly conceived plan able to
proceed? Some critics claim that electoral politics played a part,
arguing that several administration officials wanted to get rid of
Saddam before the 1996 presidential election. These claims are
difficult to prove. One thing is clear, however: No one in the
approval chain--especially in 1995-96--had the experience, stature,
or inclination to recognize a hopelessly misconceived policy and kill
the program before it was too late.

It is ironic. Iran-Contra was a half-baked scheme that captured
America's attention for almost a year, and dominated discussions over
U.S. intelligence policy for several years after that. However, no
one was killed in the Iran-Contra operation, it had little long-term
effect on U.S.-Iranian relations, and had even less effect on the
balance of power in the Persian Gulf. In contrast, according to
reports, the program to support the Iraqi Kurds resulted in more than
a hundred deaths, undercut U.S. credibility in a critical region, and
cost about $100 million. And yet, apparently, no one responsible for
the program has had to account for the consequences of this disaster.

Into the Information Age

The failure of the administration's covert operations in Iraq is
troubling. U.S. leaders need to understand how to evaluate proposals
for covert action and, when necessary, carry out such operations
effectively. For while paramilitary operations and coups are probably
relics of the Cold War, the issue of covert action may soon become
more important than ever.

During the mid-1990s, a new buzz phrase entered national security
conversations: "information warfare." Information warfare (in the
inevitable acronym of the national security community, "IW") refers
to the use of, or attacks on, information systems--computers,
communications networks, or databases--for military or political
advantage. Because information systems are critical to both military
operations and the civilian economy, they are prime targets for
disruption and destruction. IW is the dark side of the Information

U.S. officials are reluctant to discuss the use of information
warfare by the United States. They are, however, willing to talk
freely about the IW threat against the United States. Some examples
of the scenarios they describe include the following:

Essay Types: Essay