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

* The United States buys many of the electronic components for its
weapons systems from foreign countries. Since some of these countries
would prefer that the United States stay out of their regions and
refrain from criticizing their human rights records, it follows that
they could build "bugs" into the components they sell so that, in the
event of war, U.S. smart weapons would suddenly become dumb and
unable to find or hit their targets.

* A U.S. software company is about to release a new product that
could give it a major competitive advantage. A foreign intelligence
service, hoping to protect the market share of software companies in
its own country, plants sophisticated disinformation on Internet
"chat groups" and web sites, suggesting that early versions of the
new U.S. product are unreliable and can fail with catastrophic

* Modern infrastructure--rail, electric power, hospitals, and air
traffic control--are all controlled by computer systems. Unfriendly
forces create chaos and destruction by penetrating these systems. In
wartime, they cripple the deployment of U.S. forces that depend on
the commercial infrastructure.

Other scenarios easily come to mind. IW strikes can be tactical (e.g., jamming a specific communications link or impersonating a particular terrorist group) or strategic (e.g., planting disinformation to lead hostile researchers down a technological cul-de-sac).

Although U.S. officials usually discuss such operations in terms of the threat they present to the United States, it does not take a genius to figure out that we could easily do the same to others. Indeed, the United States has a large potential advantage in information warfare. American-based companies dominate the computer, software, communications, and broadcast industries. We have the access and the expertise. If anyone is in a position to use IW to its advantage, it is the U.S. military and intelligence community.

IW is likely to be most effective when the target does not know the identity of the attacker - the disguised hacker, the unannounced penetrator, the anonymous source of bogus information. In other words, much information warfare will be covert action. So at the very moment when Cold War-style covert operations are becoming discredited and passe, a new potential form has appeared. And this is why the mishandling of covert operations in Iraq and elsewhere is so disturbing. If U.S. leaders were so inept with the old covert options, how can we expect them to understand both the potential and the limitations of exotic new ones?

This is also why the reluctance of U.S. officials to discuss policy and planning for offensive information warfare is worrisome. Without public debate, we cannot develop a national consensus or policy on major issues. Consider, finally, these questions:

* What are the capabilities that U.S. military forces and intelligence organizations must develop in order to use IW effectively and, when necessary, covertly? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these capabilities? Can they reduce the need for conventional military forces and military operations? Under what conditions?

* Can the United States develop these capabilities without exposing itself and its allies to the threat of retaliation?

* Which, if any, potential IW targets should be off limits?

* The private sector's role in communications, computers, the media, and technology development is larger than that of the government, and growing more so. How can government organizations work with industry to maintain the U.S. edge in IW?

* Do U.S. defense and intelligence officials have an adequate understanding of strategy and tactics for information warfare?

* Do we have the laws, expertise, and institutions necessary to oversee this new potential form of covert action?

This discussion needs to be carried out in public. Although we need to protect the details of our plans and capabilities, we can and must discuss general principles in the open. If we do not, we are bound to repeat the mistakes in oversight, accountability, and effectiveness that have plagued covert action in the past.

Bruce D. Berkowitz is an author and consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. Allan E. Goodman is executive dean of the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Both served in the Central Intelligence Agency.

Essay Types: Essay