Covert Operations

views updated May 11 2018

Covert Operations

John Prados

Unlike many concepts in foreign affairs, the secret, sub rosa practice of covert operations has a formal definition officially approved by the president of the United States and embodied in a National Security Council (NSC) directive. According to NSC Directive 10/2, approved on 18 June 1948, a covert operation is an activity sponsored by the United States government against foreign states or groups that is so planned and executed that U.S. responsibility for it is not evident to an unauthorized person and that, if uncovered, the government can plausibly deny responsibility for the action. The operation could be unilateral, in support of a foreign state or group, and have a state or nonstate targetthe key aspect is that the activity remain secret. Although not provided for in Directive 10/2, covert operations also can be conducted unilaterally or in conjunction with other friendly, or even adversary, intelligence services in pursuit of common objectives and goals.

Beneath the formal definition, the kinds of activity involved in covert operations fall into a number of broad categories. Chief among these are political action, paramilitary activity, psychological warfare, and economic warfare. The evolution of technology suggests strongly that operational incentives in intelligence work will shortly add a new broad category of cyberaction or computer warfare to the traditional covert action menu. A large-scale covert operation usually has components that involve many or all of these categories.

In political action the object is to influence the internal situation in a foreign country by manipulating local political conditions. Intervention in an election is at the high end of the scale in political action, and might involve financial support for candidates, media advice, technical support for public relations, get-out-the-vote or political organizing efforts, legal expertise, advertising campaigns, assistance with poll-watching, and other means of direct action. More subtly, local situations could be influenced by agents, such as officials of the country targeted for action making decisions in their official capacities that are in the interest of the political action. Mechanisms for creating and deepening opinions are of key importance in covert political action, which often therefore involves propaganda. Some of the earliest Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operations were political actions to influence elections. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, global and domestic interests in democracy and democratic values were such that intelligence agency political actions might be able to benefit from cooperation with or cover from private groups seeking to foment these kinds of institutions and values.

Political action may have objectives short of a change of government. This is particularly true given the perspective since the end of the Cold War, with nonstate actors increasingly dominating the attention of intelligence services. A hypothetical political action, one not known to be in progress but which very likely may be, would be an operation designed to worsen local conditions that permit drug cartels and international criminal enterprises to flourish.

In paramilitary operations the intelligence service (or military force) conducts activities similar to those of constituted military units. Again the target may be a nation or a nonstate actor, but the currency of influence will be force. An operation may involve unconventional warfare, such as commando raids, training, advice, equipment, or command of irregular forces; it may also include support of guerrilla activities, creation of secret networks to oppose an adversary even if a country falls, the active propagation of a coup d'état, collaboration with or reinforcement of local security forces (such as the creation of a security detachment to protect a foreign head of state), and other functions. A number of U.S. paramilitary initiatives during the Cold War period involved cooperation with third country intelligence or military services.

In psychological warfare the object is to mold opinion in the service of other activities, such as diplomacy, political action, paramilitary operations, or open warfare. Activities in psychological warfare run the gamut of the ways in which people absorb information. Traditionally, this has meant leaflets, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and television, all of which have to be harnessed to convey the propaganda message appropriate to the operation. In the twenty-first century, techniques will expand to cover electronic communication by computer and the Internet as well, and intelligence services can create leaflets, finance books, journals, or television/radio programs. They may employ officers to work as journalists, recruit agents of influence, operate media outlets, plant certain stories or information in places it may come to public attention, or seek to deny and/or discredit information that is public knowledge. A distinction is made in psychological warfare regarding whether the target audience is permitted to be aware of the originator of the material they are receiving. In all such propaganda efforts, "black" operations denote those in which the audience is to be kept ignorant of the source; "white" efforts are those in which the originator openly acknowledges himself; and "gray" operations are those in which the source is partly but not fully acknowledged. In psychological warfare theory the attribution of a claim or piece of information included in a psychological warfare campaign has a bearing on the receptiveness of the audience, so that planners consider questions of black versus white carefully.

Economic warfare is aimed at the adversary's production capability and scientific-technological (research and development) base. Often used as part of paramilitary operations or psychological warfare, this technique reduces the target's actual output, retards innovation, or lends weight to claims being made in propaganda. A campaign of this kind may involve paramilitary-style commando raids to sabotage or demolish targets, or on-site actions by agents or sympathizers with identical aims. This variety of covert action can also involve semiopen measures such as preclusively or preemptively purchasing items on global markets to keep them out of the hands of the adversary, or diplomatic actions intended to reduce or eliminate international markets for the adversary's products. In fact, varieties of possible action are limited only by the imagination of practitioners.


Under the general label of "subversion," covert operations in fact have a lengthy history in warfare. Fomentation of rebellions by agents of another power has occurred many times in history; examples are British plots with royalist agents against Napoleon (18001804), French schemes to overthrow the government of Mexico (18611867), German plots in Mexico, Persia, and Turkey (19121916), and various governments' machinations during the Spanish Civil War (19361939). Recruitment and employment of mercenaries, which can be categorized as a paramilitary activity, dates to at least the eleventh century, and accounts for a substantial fraction of forces in the field during periods of the Middle Ages. A major covert paramilitary operation, which eventually ended in full-scale military intervention, was France's provision of experts and equipment to rebels during the American Revolution (17771778). Spanish guerrillas fighting the French Empire (18071814) made a major contribution to the downfall of Napoleon I, while Boer commandos raiding into British South Africa (18951899) set the stage for the Second Boer War. An example of a political action would be the efforts of Sir William Stephenson and the unit he led, British Security Coordination, to encourage U.S. entry into World War II during 19401941.

While states and actors in international relations have always made efforts to convince audiences that their course is the righteous one, the targets of these information campaigns have shifted gradually over time. Propagandists in the American Revolution (17751783) sought to convince other Americans to support the rebellion and not the British Crown. In the French Revolution and the succeeding Napoleonic wars (17891815) the objects were similarly to justify actions by one's own side and denigrate the enemy. By the time of the Franco-Prussian War (18701871), when the Paris Commune printed leaflets it distributed to German soldiers in an effort to dissuade them from continuing the fight, the target of propaganda began shifting to the adversary side.

During World War I (19141918) the whole idea of propaganda was taken to a new level. Possibly because the question of who was responsible for that conflict was deemed so controversial, and possibly due to its intensity as modern "total" war, World War I brought a focused practice of propaganda. As the war continued, with frustrations mounting at the inability to achieve progress on the battlefront, and mutinies of soldiers in the French and Russian armies and sailors in the German navy, ideas for propaganda seemed more and more to have practical application. Propaganda coupled with political action figured in the German decision to provide a train and free passage home for Russian revolutionaries exiled in Switzerland, persons who eventually played key roles in the overthrow of the Russian monarchy. British propaganda in the United States plus astute leaks of intelligence (a telegram from the German foreign minister indicating an intention to conduct subversive activities in the Americas) had an important effect on the U.S. decision to enter the war.

There were more developments during the period 19191939. Nazi Germany for the first time created a cabinet-level government department named the Ministry of Propaganda. Since that time the propaganda and public relations roles of officials working in the information ministries of many nations have come to overshadow their role of providing knowledge to citizens. The Germans also created templates for effective propaganda techniques and built theories around them. Although the term "psychological warfare" is best credited to World War II, the main techniques and tenets of the theory existed by the 1930s and were tested by Germany, Italy, and Russia in their interventions in the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish war also proved important to the evolution of paramilitary operations, with the phrase "fifth column" used to denote a (subversive) force that attacks the adversary from within at the orders of an external foe, originating in that civil war.

World War II (19391945) featured the use of covert operations by all sides and the introduction of almost all the techniques utilized in modern times. The style of political manipulation used by Germany in Norway, Hungary, Romania, by Japan in India, Burma, French Indochina, by Great Britain in the Middle East, and by the United States in French North Africa all carried traditional propaganda activities to a new level and essentially created modern political action. The rise of popular resistance movements, to Germany in Europeand to Japan in the Philippines, Burma, and Chinabrought demands for external assistance and led to the creation of organizations specialized in working with guerrilla movements, such as Great Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE). The ability of the resistance movements to conduct systematic activities behind enemy lines, including both simple espionage and more forceful sabotage and ambush, affirmed the notion that a "fifth column" could function, leading to the postwar creation of "stay-behind networks" intended to replicate the functions of the World War II resistance. At the same time, the notion of supplementing resistance activities with teams of specialists from the out-side, and reinforcing their actions with carefully targeted commando raids, added depth and comprehensiveness to the entire endeavor. This carried paramilitary operations to a new level as well.

One resistance function added sabotage to older forms of subversion. Sabotage was used against enemy transportation systems, communications networks, and war production. These tactics could be useful in specific situations, such as the work of the French resistance in hampering German transport, and thus the response to the 1944 invasion of Normandy. The technique could also work generally, reducing war production or inflicting delays on critical shipments. In the sense of World War II as a "total" war, the subversive effort against the enemy war economy could be fitted together with regular military operations, such as the bombing of factories, and with import-export controls, preclusive buying of raw materials, and other measures to affect the adversary's economy. The experience brought a realization that a nation could wage economic warfare. Ultimately this added a new category to the varieties of covert operations.

Psychological warfare also attained new levels during World War II. The growth of electronic means of communication started before the war, and by 1939 had reached the point that broadcast radio was widely distributed among populations in every nation. This created a new field for the dissemination of propaganda, and every belligerent was careful to put its message on the airwaves. By the same token, one could mimic and masquerade as the enemy's radio broadcasters, gaining credibility for a propaganda message that might otherwise be rejected. This in turn opened a field in "black" and "gray" media operations, which pretended to various degrees to be those of the adversary.

In leaflets and newspapers and other older techniques, World War II brought a more systematic approach to psychological warfare. Scientific research became a major contributor, with theories of how people absorb information, how they build belief systems, and why people change their minds. Psychological warfare planners began to make decisions on complete campaigns, with comprehensive activities in many media, consistent themes across the different forms, messages evolving over time (and modified to take into account actual developments on the war fronts), and specific goals and objectives. Opinion research and prisoner interrogation became an important guide for ways to frame the psychological warfare themes.

A further major development of World War II would be that belligerents realized that these distinct elements of covert operations could be combined into coherent efforts with multiple facets. In addition, one could build a "strategy," specific plans using numerous tactics to gain particular objectives. It is instructive that in at least three of the crucial war theaters of 19391945western Europe, the Middle East, and South-east/East Asiathe Anglo-American alliance created specialized headquarters to control all covert operations.

One more innovation of the 19391945 period was the creation of national-level organizations to carry out these activities. On the American side, for example, it is of interest that the initial entity in this field was formed to manage propaganda activity. This unit, the Office of the Coordinator of Information, soon metamorphosed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a national intelligence organization headed by the same individual (William J. Donovan). The propaganda function continued to be consolidated, but under a second entity, the Office of War Information. Over a very short time the OSS became a full-service intelligence organization. Its branches for intelligence reporting (Research and Analysis), counterespionage (called X-2), and spying (Special Intelligence) were under a deputy director for intelligence and are not of concern here. But the OSS had a separate directorate for operations and that included branches for special operations (which worked with resistance networks), morale operations (for psychological warfare of the "black" and "gray" varieties), a set of operations groups (middle-size commando units tasked with specific targets), a maritime unit (for naval covert operations where necessary, but mainly to transport OSS officers and supply shipments to points behind enemy lines), and a special projects office (a parallel activity for highly sensitive operations, especially ones related to then-exotic weapons, such as atomic bombs or biological weaponry). At its late-1944 peak the OSS employed almost 13,000 men and women, about 7,500 of them overseas, with a fiscal year 1945 budget (in then-year dollars) of $43 million.

At the field level, OSS operations were carried out by "detachments." For example, OSS Detachment 101 served in Burma and mobilized an army of Kachin tribesmen against the Japanese. Detachment 202 worked in China, training nationalist Chinese, carrying out some sabotage missions, and having some contacts with the Chinese communists. In Europe, OSS detachments worked in the Mediterranean, where they assisted resistance forces in Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, and later in northern Italy. These operations succeeded an initial OSS penetration into French North Africa, from which later activities were controlled. Western European activities were controlled from London and included paramilitary actions in France, Norway, Germany, and Austria. In every one of these areas the OSS maintained a delicate relationship with allies, including secret services of Great Britain, France, and China. The covert operators of the OSS simultaneously learned from their allies and cooperated with them, but the nations frequently had cross-cutting purposes in local situations.

With the end of the war, President Harry S. Truman reorganized U.S. intelligence. Believing the existing OSS to have become superfluous, Truman dissolved it on 20 September 1945. The organization's analytical arm was folded into the Department of State as the Office of Research and Intelligence. The OSS espionage elements were attached to the Department of War as the Strategic Services Unit (SSU). Field detachments were broken up, with some personnel continuing on with the SSU, some going to related groups like the army's Counterintelligence Corps, and others demobilized. Psychological warfare capability at a reduced level continued within the army, and its ranger battalions contained whatever commando and unconventional warfare capability remained. The capacity for conducting paramilitary operations was entirely eliminated.

Two factors combined to change the system introduced in the immediate postwar period. One was President Truman's continuing dissatisfaction with the organizational structure of U.S. intelligence. In January 1946, Truman introduced an executive oversight body he called the National Intelligence Authority to supervise the work of a new director of central intelligence (DCI) who would run a central intelligence group. The new arrangement continued to be unsatisfactory and in 1947, when Truman designated omnibus legislation to deal with universal military training, create a national military establishment and secretary of defense, as well as the National Security Council, the president included provisions for the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Signed into law on 26 July 1947, the National Security Act of 1947 continues to this day as the statutory authority underlying the CIA. Apart from laws that govern restricted aspects of intelligence work, such as retirement policy, the DCI's responsibility to safeguard sources and methods, the public identification of undercover intelligence officers, and the like, the 1947 act is the only charter the agency has. This is significant for covert operations because the 1947 act says nothing about them. Instead, all covert operations (and many other CIA activities as well) have been based on a single clause of the law, which states that the CIA can "perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct." The mandate was simultaneously incredibly broad, very thin, and ambiguous, so much so that on at least four occasions (1947, 1962, 1969, and 1974) lawyers in the office of the CIA's general counsel warned that the statutory authorization was insufficient to cover covert operations.

The second factor that transformed intelligence roles and missions was the growth of hostility between the United States and Russia, which gave rise to the Cold War. This ideological conflict pitted democratic ideals against the authoritarian communist politics of Russia (then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The Cold War struggle seemed to call for the kind of all-out commitment, including covert operations, that had characterized World War II. Thus the NSC directive on covert operations made explicit reference to communism and Russia in establishing provisions for covert action.

In response to demands for action the U.S. intelligence community and the executive branch quickly devised new entities for covert operations. The CIA, Department of State, and military pooled personnel and resources to form the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), which assumed the mantle of authority. The NSC 10/2 directive had specifically ordered the CIA to create the Office of Special Projects, much like the OSS did, for this purpose, and this unit, renamed OPC, also absorbed the Special Procedures Group the CIA had formed to carry out psychological warfare in December 1947. By 1949, OPC had 302 personnel, seven overseas stations, and a budget of $4.7 million. By 1952 personnel had risen to 2,812 plus 3,142 contract employees, who were spending $82 million and working from forty-seven overseas stations.

One of the first major U.S. covert operations was intervention in Italian politics in 19471948 to prevent an electoral victory by the Italian communist party. This political action started a lengthy involvement in Italy, which continued through at least the 1970s; it also set the standard for CIA political action programs. A similar intervention in France was designed to weaken the French communist party, while actions on the propaganda/psychological warfare front included funding journals and newspapers (the CIA would have a controlling interest in the Rome Daily American, for example), the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the World Assembly of Youth, the "gray" broadcast station Radio Free Europe, and the "black" (at least initially) station Radio Liberty. Both the CIA and OPC began programs to furnish financial support to publications and books deemed suitable for advancing the anticommunist cause, and money was laundered through the Marshall Plan and the Ford Foundation among others. Much of this knowledge emerged in a spate of revelations in 1967, forcing President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint a special commission under deputy attorney general Nicolas de B. Katzenbach to investigate these political actions. One lesson that would be repeatedly relearned is that covert operations are fraught with political consequence for the initiator as well as the target.

Paramilitary operations got under way in collaboration with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). The Americans made a start in 19501952 by joining in an attempt to overthrow the communist government of Albania. The OPC, by this time, had lost its institutional independence and become part of the Directorate of Plans (DDP) within the CIA (in another 1952 reorganization the OPC and the directorate's other major unit, the espionage-centered Office of Special Operations, would be entirely merged) so that the actor on the American side of these operations was officially CIA. The CIA and SIS were allied in paramilitary operations into Russia (now Ukraine and Belarus), Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Much of the burden in those operations was carried by the SIS, but in Poland, where there would be another combined paramilitary-political action, the CIA carried the burden. Every one of these operations was known to the adversary and had been penetrated by means of the Russians placing spies of their own within the CIASIS apparatus. All the operations failed by 1953. (However, it should be noted that anticommunist Russians continued efforts to make some kind of inroad into the USSR until at least the late 1950s.) The CIA moved on to greener pastures. The lesson here would be that covert operations against the communist enemythe mandated target when the CIA created its covert operations programwere too difficult to carry out.

In general, operations proved most successful where the CIA had freedom of movement and good access, which in this period meant western Europe. A particular concern was the creation of stay-behind networks that would function just like the World War II resistance had in the event the Russians overran western Europe in a future war. Such nets were successfully created in virtually every western European country from Italy to Norway, including neutrals such as Sweden and even nations under military occupation like Austria. In some countries the secret networks were tied in to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense planning. In all of them the conservative political bent of adherents to the groups gave the CIA certain political contacts. Secrecy lasted for several decades, until a rash of detailed revelations during the early 1980s led to controversy, with parliamentary inquiries in more than one European country and attendant embarrassment for the United States. The lesson here contradicts an aphorism often heard from intelligence officers, that successes remain secret while only failures become known to the public. More accurately, every covert operation above a certain size will ultimately become known.

It would be during the early 1950s that the CIA's Directorate of Plans achieved its classic covert victories. One came in Iran in 1953 in conjunction with SIS, where the Americans and British induced an unusual coup in which a constitutional monarch overthrew the government of his own country. Here the shah of Iran, relying upon popular support of the CIA, had mobilized and ousted a left-wing populist cabinet to create a virtual military dictatorship. In another victory in 1954, the CIA overthrew the elected Labor Party (socialist to communist ideologically) government of Guatemala, through a combination of psychological warfare, paramilitary action by a small force, and diplomatic pressure. Again the successor government was a military dictatorship.

The shah of Iran managed to hold on to power through the late 1970s by a combination of economic modernization and political repression, but the suppression of moderate political forces in his country forced opposition to align with a fundamentalist religious movement that ultimately toppled the shah in a 1979 revolution. At that time the U.S. embassy would be taken over, and American diplomats (and the officers of the CIA station) held hostage for 444 days, with the United States painted as the "Great Satan" to the Iranian public. In the years since the Iranian revolution, the United States was unable to restore a balanced relationship with Iran. Worse, the Iranians supported terrorist groups in the Middle East through the 1980s, which significantly harmed American interests and took lives, hostages, and made other depredations in a succession of incidents.

In Guatemala the military government installed by the covert operation replaced a democratic tradition and handed power to other military regimes or authoritarian oligarchies that maintained authority by high security. Beginning in 1968 the military inaugurated a war against the peasantry that endured into the late 1990s, leaving more than half the population of the country displaced internally and with a death toll in excess of 60,000.

A lesson here is that covert operations successes do not always lead to achievements to be proud of, possibly due to the moral, political, and empirical compromises necessary in pursuit of the short-term action. In addition, long-term effects can be more detrimental to U.S. interests than the improvements gained by the original success.

A further characteristic of these covert operations is that they were aimed not at Russia or its Soviet bloc but at Third World countries. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration in the end would be very active in covert operations, all of them against putative communist foes, and almost all in the Third World. Among these were projects carried out in Vietnam (19541956 paramilitary efforts), Eastern Europe (19531956 psychological warfare), Indonesia (1958 paramilitary), Laos (1958 political action; 1959on paramilitary), Tibet (1959on paramilitary), Cuba (1960on paramilitary and economic warfare), and Congo (1960on). Eisenhower bequeathed to John F. Kennedy a number of these ongoing activities. President Kennedy actually assumed the entire blame for the dismal CIA failure at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, an operation whose dimensions had been set by his predecessor.

Aside from its effects on world opinion of the United States and consequences in Latin American diplomacy, the Bay of Pigs failure had a major impact on U.S. national security policy overall. President Kennedy and his advisers were induced to review ways of making policy, approving covert operations, and U.S. capabilities for covert and unconventional warfare. Kennedy determined to make the U.S. military, not the CIA, responsible for all paramilitary activity that met certain criteria. Kennedy also credited the CIA failure with instilling in him a new attitude of skepticism regarding advice from government bureaucrats. Finally, at the most fundamental level, Kennedy intimates report that in the wake of the Bay of Pigs failure, the president actually considered breaking up the CIA.

While President Kennedy changed the way he did business, he did not reduce reliance on CIA covert operations. Kennedy continued all the covert actions that had been in progress when he came to office. Far from giving up on the Cuba action after the Bay of Pigs disaster, he ordered a renewed project called Mongoose. Kennedy added major covert operations in Vietnam. In fact, where the Eisenhower administration had approved 104 covert operations in eight years, Kennedy's approved 163 in slightly more than three years. From political action in British Guiana to reorganized activity in Africa, the CIA's work was global during this period. Part of the rise in numbers of approvals can be accounted for by more stringent rules on what kinds of covert operations required National Security Council subcommittee approvalone postBay of Pigs reformbut reliance on the method nevertheless remained strong.

Kennedy's rules on approvals began an evolution of procedures, each time more explicit, that endured at least through the 1980s and that came to involve Congress as well as the executive branch. Even under the Kennedy-Johnson rules, most covert actions never rose to the NSC level. The Richard M. Nixon administration added a requirement that its NSC monitoring unit, called the 40 Committee, review annually the covert operations that were in progress. In 1974 reporting requirements expanded into Congress, with the CIA required to report to eight different committees under the Hughes-Ryan Amendment. The agency chafed under this restriction and later won a reduction in the reporting requirements to where notifications must go to the Select Intelligence Committee in the Senate and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the House of Representatives. A "presidential finding" that a given operation is in the national security interests of the United States is the required notification. These findings, in turn, came into question during the Iran-Contra affair of the late 1980s, which raised questions as to whether findings could be retroactive, unwritten ("mental" in the phrase of Attorney General Edwin Meese), furnished after the activities in question had been carried out, and so on. Reforms that followed clarified the presidential finding system such that the documents are provided in advance, kept current, that covert operations are of a certain size, and provide other important details.

For a brief period during the Gerald R. Ford administration (19761977) the executive branch maintained its own Intelligence Oversight Board to monitor the appropriateness and implementation of covert operations. Otherwise this has been among many functions of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), except during the James Earl Carter administration (19771981) when that entity was temporarily abolished. Subject to presidential goals, style, and whims, such executive monitoring has been of limited utility; for example, it did not protect President Ronald Reagan (19811989) from the excesses of Iran-Contra or other difficulties attributable to highhanded actions by his director of central intelligence, William J. Casey. Meanwhile, the NSC group approving covert operations has gone through a series of identity changes: 303 Committee (Johnson administration), 40 Committee (Nixon/Ford administrations), NSC Special Coordinating Committee (Carter administration), National Security Planning Group (Reagan administration), NSC Deputies Committee (George H. W. Bush, William Jefferson Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations); but the unit has retained essentially the same membership in terms of the offices held by participants.

The Johnson administration ended the covert operation against Cuba and phased out CIA action in the Congo. However, it encouraged a coup in Ghana and brought major intelligence resources to bear in Bolivia against Che Guevara, a hero of the Cuban revolution. In Chile the Johnson administration carried out a political action during the 1964 elections to prevent any victory by Chilean socialists. In Asia, the Johnson-era CIA terminated the Tibetan paramilitary operation, attempted a political action in Indonesia (19651966), and carried out full-scale secret wars in Laos and South Vietnam. Johnson also continued CIA funding for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty's "gray" psychological warfare campaign.

In 1971, during the Nixon administration, funding for the radios stopped, no longer supported by Congress. This administration continued the secret wars in South Vietnam and Laos and escalated the latter by bringing into it whole battalions and artillery units of third-country nationals (in this case, Thais). The CIA's Directorate of Plans was retitled the Directorate of Operations. To benefit Israel, the administration carried out a mid-intensity paramilitary campaign in Iraq, arming Kurdish tribesmen to fight the national government. Nixon's best-known covert operation would be a large-scale political action in Chile aimed at preventing the emergence of socialist government and, when that failed, at creating such economic and social dislocation in Chile that the government of President Salvador Allende would topple. That occurred in 1973, giving way to a military dictatorship that held sway until the early 1990s. At the close of the century, General Augusto Pinochet, leader of the Chilean military junta, was defending himself from an array of foreign and Chilean criminal indictments flowing from his takeover and governance. The shift in international legal norms toward greater attention to human rights issues, termination of sovereign immunity in mass murder cases, and the absence of a statute of limitations for war crimes complicated recruitment for covert operations in the twenty-first century.

The end of America's Vietnam War (19611975), in which U.S. combat operations terminated in early 1973, brought a reduction in CIA covert operations capabilities as experts retired, their contracts were not renewed, and CIA proprietaries such as Air America were liquidated. One consequence would be fewer covert operations through the 1970s. The Ford administration initiated one significant paramilitary campaign in Angola, against a socialist majority party backed by Cubans and Russians. Halted by a Senate amendment prohibiting expenditure of funds, the Angola action attained the distinction of being the only covert operation formally ended by a congressional vote. The Carter administration worried about Angola but focused its covert efforts in west Africa and particularly Afghanistan, after the Russian intervention there at the end of 1979. The latter would be a fresh CIA multilateral initiative, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China enlisted to assist a paramilitary effort.

William J. Casey ran the CIA for the Reagan administration between 1981 and 1987. This period was more active for covert operations than any time since the Eisenhower years. Under Casey the CIA resumed covert assistance in Angola and conducted additional paramilitary campaigns in Mozambique, Chad/Libya, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Iran, and Nicaragua. It was reported in 1984 that fifty major covert operations were in progress at that time as compared to ten during the final year of the Carter administration.

An operation the CIA conducted at a low level in Cambodia had the United States in support of a communist faction that had murdered more than a million people when it was in power. In both Cambodia and Afghanistan, the United States was allied with erstwhile enemy the People's Republic of China. Afghanistan would be the closest the CIA came to a classic covert victory in the 1980s. Fundamentalist Muslim groupsarmed by the CIA and trained by the United Statesand Pakistan fought the Russians to a standstill and forced them to withdraw in 1989. But neither the CIA nor the Russians stopped aid to their respective factions in Afghanistan until 1992; a decade later fighting was still disrupting that country and had brought to power a faction that shielded terrorists whom the United States considered a major threat to its national security. Worse still, the terrorists benefited from CIA trainingArabs actually have a term, "American Afghan," for Muslim fundamentalist fighters who got their start in the CIA war of 19801989and the sophisticated weapons the agency provided. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist strikes on New York City and Washington, D.C., one irony would be the fact that this action could lead the United States into an alliance with Russia in a further covert operation in Afghanistan.

In Latin America a CIA covert operation of the Reagan years led to a constitutional crisis in the United States. This was the paramilitary effort against the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Standard paramilitary tactics proved ineffective enough that the CIA resorted to third-country nationals and a CIA-directed ("unilateral" is the term) mining campaign against Nicaraguan ports. The CIA then misled Congress about these actions, resulting in a suspension of funds to the agency campaign. The zealous CIA director Casey combined with White House NSC staff aides to run the covert operation outside the system, using money derived from the sale of weapons to Iran. This involved President Reagan in several violations of U.S. law and called his leadership into question. The formal CIA program eventually resumed, and a negotiated end to Central American fighting ended the bloodshed, but in the United States a special prosecutor appointed by the court continued investigations and prosecutions of officials involved in these events until well into the administration of President George H. W. Bush.

Covert actions did not end with Reagan. In the Bush administration there were CIA paramilitary efforts in Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991 and in Panama (1989). The CIA would also become quite involved in political action in Somalia in conjunction with the U.S. humanitarian intervention there (19921993). For the most part, however, the time is too recent to report very much regarding covert operations during either the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Judging from the policy statements, however, a high proportion of these can be expected to have been against such "nonstate actors" as drug cartels and terrorist groups. Prime examples are the actions initiated globally by the United States following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.


It is significant that capabilities which the United States created to wage an ideological war against Russian communism have found their primary use against small nations in the Third World. In the aftermath of the Cold War, when American democratic ideals were extolled, the fact that covert operations posed an implicit political, paramilitary, and psychological warfare challenge to national self-determination in the Third World detracted from the luster of the United States. Suspicion of U.S. motives will also follow from public knowledge of the existence and practice of covert operations techniques.

It is problematic that more than fifty years after the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency no fundamental law existed that defined in detail the authority and responsibilities of U.S. intelligence. It remained questionable whether the legal authority to conduct covert operations exists in U.S. law. Part of the recurring struggle over the approval and authorization for covert operations arose precisely because the charter for the mission remained ambiguous. If the public adopted a different understanding of "intelligence matters" or rejected an expansive definition of "national security," the limited legal framework provided by the National Security Act of 1947 would disappear instantly.

Covert operations also takes the CIA, and U.S. intelligence more broadly, out of its ideal role of informing statecraft. In a covert operation the CIA is an action agency, with practical policy interests and a need to advocate them. This puts the agency into the ranks of the rest of the government, arguing options and furnishing a rationale to slant the intelligence analysis, the objectivity of which is crucial to policymakers.

From the standpoint of control and management, there is little evidence that the CIA and other agencies, including military agencies, are out-of-control, "rogue elephants" in the idiom of the 1970s. The danger is more one of overzealousness in the implementation of presidential directives, as demonstrated in the Iran-Contra affair. A process of continual review is necessary to supervise covert operations.

From the standpoint of diplomacy, covert operations are a complicating factor. The degree of covert activism contributes to a global image of the United States, and established images would be difficult to change even if the United States were to cease the practice of covert operations. Moreover, actions taken in the past can influence present events, even the far distant past and the modernist present as in the case of Iran. Covert operations also have unanticipated consequences both foreign and domestic, especially where overzealous operators exceed instructions.

Unfortunately, presidents almost always have a full plate of vital issues of the day. They rarely have the opportunity for the detailed examination and management of covert operations, as Kennedy learned painfully from the Bay of Pigs. The formula of using an NSC subcommittee for control has limitations of its own, and congressional oversight has been a two-edged sword. In short, problems of management have persisted and are likely to do so. On the other hand, covert operations have been seductive, promising action on intractable international situations seemingly outside the awkward framework of war powers, nonintervention in the internal affairs of foreign nations, and coping for ways to get at nonstate actors. Some, especially former practitioners, hold up covert operations as a "third option" between doing nothing and going to war. The likelihood is that postCold War covert operations will be frequent, and that existing difficulties with the technique will endure.


Higgins, Trumbull. The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. New York, 1987. Presents a detailed analysis of one of the most spectacular covert operations failures.

Johnson, Loch K. Secret Agencies: U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World. New Haven, Conn., 1996. An overview of intelligence with insightful comments on covert operations.

Kwitney, Jonathon. Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World. New York, 1984. Shows several examples of a process by which covert operations rebound to the detriment of the United States.

Moser, Charles, ed. Combat on Communist Territory. Washington, D.C., 1985. Essays that examine progress in various countries at the high point of Reagan-era covert operations.

Prados, John. Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II Through the Persian Gulf. An in-depth survey of covert operations in which the author demonstrates common features and problems of use of these techniques. Rev. ed. Chicago, 1996.

Shackley, Theodore. The Third Option: An American View of Counterinsurgency Operations. New York, 1981. Argues for covert operations as a cost-effective alternative to military action.

Treverton, Gregory F. Covert Action: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World. New York, 1987. An investigator for the Church Committee warns of the inadequacies of covert action.

See also Congressional Power; Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Intervention and Nonintervention; National Security Council; Presidential Power .

Covert Operations

views updated Jun 27 2018

Covert Operations. In June 1948, National Security Council Directive 10/2 defined covert operations as actions conducted by the United States against foreign states “which are so planned and executed that any U.S. Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the U.S. Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” It then authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to undertake such clandestine activities, including “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti‐sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberations groups, and support of indigenous anti‐communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.”

Long before the CIA became involved in covert operations, however, the United States had used similar clandestine methods to achieve national objectives. President George Washington, for example, who had a keen appreciation for the role of intelligence in both war and peace, persuaded Congress in July 1790 to establish the Contingent Fund of Foreign Intercourse. Known as the Secret Service fund, this money was spent by Washington (without a requirement for detailed accounting) in a covert operation to ransom Americans held hostage by the Barbary states.

During the nineteenth century, American presidents authorized covert operations on an infrequent, ad hoc basis. Although the United States remained isolated for the most part from international power politics, various administrations found cause to initiate covert operations in Canada, Cuba, Hawaii, and Central America. For the most part, the State Department maintained control over these clandestine activities. At no time did the government consider establishing a professional foreign intelligence service.

The increasing involvement of the United States in world affairs during the twentieth century led inexorably to the creation of a permanent intelligence service with the capability to undertake covert operations. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt both became deeply immersed in clandestine intelligence activities while fighting global wars. Indeed, the most immediate precedent for the CIA's covert operations can be found in World War II's Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that combined intelligence gathering with paramilitary covert action. The OSS provided assistance to resistance and guerrilla groups from France to Burma. Although “plausible deniability” was not required for these wartime activities, the methods and techniques—and many of the personnel—that were used by Gen. William Donovan's clandestine fighters were passed on to the CIA.

After World War II, policymakers in Washington recognized the need for an option beyond diplomacy but short of war as they grew apprehensive about the emergence of an aggressive Soviet Union that seemed to threaten American interests around the world. The National Security Act (1947), which created the CIA, gave the new organization not only the mission to collect and evaluate intelligence but also a vaguely worded duty “to perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” At the end of 1947, the National Security Council (NSC) first defined these “other functions and duties” when it made the CIA responsible for covert psychological operations. Directive 10/2 went much further, creating the Office of Special Projects (later, Office of Policy Coordination), headed by Frank Wisner to conduct a wide variety of covert operations.

The first clandestine project undertaken by the CIA was an attempt through psychological warfare and political covert action to influence the elections of 1948 in Western Europe. Paramilitary covert operations began with the Korean War. By 1952, the budget of the Office of Policy Coordination had grown from $4.7 million (1949) to $82 million. At the same time, personnel assigned to this covert action agency increased from 302 to 2,812 (plus 3,142 overseas contract personnel).

The presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61) marked the “golden age” of covert operations. More than any other chief executive in the postwar era, Eisenhower made covert action a major part of his foreign policy. The CIA, led by Allen Welsh Dulles, undertook a variety of clandestine activities at presidential direction, including the successful overthrow of unfriendly governments in Iran and Guatemala, and a failed attempt to topple the government of Indonesia. During the Eisenhower‐Dulles era, clandestine collection and covert action accounted for 54 percent of the CIA's total annual budget.

Although the disastrous attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 painfully revealed the limits of the CIA's capability for cover paramilitary action and led to the dismissal of Dulles, presidents during the 1960s continued to utilize covert operations with undiminished enthusiasm, most notably in the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The CIA was especially active in Laos, where between 1961 and 1973 it directed local troops against major Communist forces in the largest covert paramilitary operation in the agency's history. As a result of these activities, the budget of the clandestine service remained at over 50 percent of the CIA's total budget in the sixties.

By this time, the original concept of “plausible deniability” had been broadened to include the presidency. Assassination plots against such foreign leaders as Cuba's Fidel Castro and the Congo's Patrice Lumumba by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, for example, were structured in such a way that the president could deny responsibility for the activities.

Covert operations declined precipitously during the 1970s as a series of congressional investigations, especially the 1975–76 inquiry Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence (or Church Committee), led to greater skepticism about, and oversight of, intelligence activities. By 1977, the proportion of the CIA's budget allocated to covert action fell to less than 5 percent of the total budget, the lowest figure since 1948.

Congress, which had played little role in what was considered a prerogative of the executive branch, began to exercise tighter control of CIA clandestine activities with the Hughes‐Ryan Act (1974). This amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act prohibited the CIA from spending money for operations in foreign countries (other than for the collection of intelligence) “unless and until the President finds that each such operation is important to the national security of the United States and reports, in a timely fashion, a description and scope of each operation to the appropriate committees of Congress.” The Intelligence Oversight Act (1980) further expanded the role of Congress in monitoring covert operations. Indeed, by the 1980s, congressional committees not only exercised oversight over intelligence operations but also became part of the decision‐making process for covert action.

President Reagan and his CIA director, William Casey, placed renewed emphasis on covert operations as an instrument of national policy, especially in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Their efforts, including the use of the staff of the NSC to conduct covert action, led to the Iran‐Contra investigation, and increased congressional watchfulness over the executive branch's use of clandestine action. By the 1990s, covert operations, which could be conducted only under carefully controlled and fully reviewed conditions, had declined to a low ebb.
[See also Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Central Intelligence Agency; Counter insurgency; Intelligence, Military and Political; Iran, U.S. Military Involvement in; Iran‐Contra Affair.]


Rhodri Jeffreys‐Jones , American Espionage: From Secret Service to CIA, 1977.
William M. Leary, ed., The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents, 1984.
John Prados , Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II, 1986.
Loch K. Johnson , America's Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society, 1989.
Christopher Andrews , For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush, 1995.

William M. Leary

Covert Operations

views updated May 18 2018

Covert Operations

Covert operations are activities carried out by an intelligence or security agency, usually in a foreign country, in such a way that it is difficult to connect that agency with its action. Laws requiring free access to government information and an assertive press have provided Americans

with much knowledge about their country's participation in covert operations, particularly during the Cold War. Some scholars have interpreted this information about covert operations as evidence of an aggressive American hand played in foreign policy, while others regard the United States as the most effective nation to bear the burden of world security and political stability.

The Purpose of Covert Operations

For reasons that will be discussed below, most examinations of covert operations focus almost exclusively on U.S. covert operations, undertaken most prominently by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Virtually every populated region has been the target of U.S. covert operations during the postwar era. This is particularly true of places in which the ruling regime is neither unreservedly hostile, nor unequivocally friendly, to the United States. Even a hostile regime that has failed to fully consolidate its power, such as Cuba in the period 195961 and Iran exactly 20 years later, may provide a promising area for covert operations.

Areas of focus in covert operations include the following: support, training and indoctrination, manipulation (including "dirty tricks"), and other covert activities. Support includes political advice to friendly parties, intelligence-gathering operations, monetary disbursements to individuals working in the service of U.S. interests, financial and technical help for pro-American political parties, and assistance to other private organizations such as labor unions and companies whose interests align with those of the United States.

Training and indoctrination areas of activity may include the dissemination of propaganda, which often must be covert in order to be effective. (An example from the late 1970s is the proliferation of editorial pieces in western European dailies that favorably compared the U.S. neutron bomb with the Soviet SS-20.) Also under this heading is the training of individuals, groups, and forces in a variety of techniques and areas of expertize.

Covert manipulation activities include economic operations, which can be designed either to destabilize the economy of a hostile powerin which case the action would qualify as a "dirty trick"or to bolster the economy of a friendly, but unstable nation. In the same way, paramilitary or political-action groups can be used to destabilize or overthrow a regime (a "dirty trick"), or they can help to support a pro-American government.

A Brief History of U.S. Covert Operations

During the immediate post World War II years, the focus of covert operations was Europeprimarily in the East, but also in western nations such as France or Italy, where Communists threatened to take power, and where covert operations focused on supporting anti-Communist labor unions and parties. In the East, the focus was on destabilizing Soviet-backed regimes. CIA also backed hundreds of propaganda assets, most notably Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia, which broadcast from the Philippines to Communist China.

During the 1950s and 1960s, attention shifted to the newly emergent Third World, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and several nations in Central America, where Communists either tried to gain control of governments (or, in the case of Cuba, succeeded); the Congo in Africa, where the rise of Patrice Lumumba threatened to destabilize the region; and several areas in southwest Asia, most notably Iran, whose Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

The Carter years. The CIA and other organizations undertook extensive covert operations during the war in Vietnam, but the late 1970s saw a sharp decline in these activities. A number of reasons influenced this change, not least among them the exposure of questionable CIA deeds that took place during the Church Committee hearings in the U.S. Senate. It could be argued that the hearings themselves were but one aspect of a larger and generalized distrust of government power that emerged in the aftermath of the 1960s, Vietnam, and Watergate.

In addition, the administration of President James Earl Carter publicly favored openness in government, and reductions in American adventurism overseas. Even so, during this time, the CIA still undertook or supported, covert operations in such arenas as Angola, South Yemen, and Afghanistan, but there was unquestionably a greater emphasis on propaganda as opposed to direct action during the Carter years.

Reagan and Bush years. During the 1960s and 1970s, Communists had either won control, were attempting to win control, or enjoyed the support of dozens of nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. At the same time, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran portended the rise of another anti-American force, that of Islamic fundamentalism. Such were the challenges facing the administration of President Ronald Reagan when it took power in 1981.

Reagan responded to this situation by undertaking an array of covert operations unparalleled by that of any preceding administration. Regan stepped up covert operations and support of anti-Communist forces in Afghanistan and Angola, as well as those in El Salvador. He sought to destabilize the Vietnamese-backed Communist regime in Cambodia, as well as the Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Although Reagan was particularly active in the Middle East against Iraq, Libya, and Iran, the most notorious covert operation of the Reagan years involved collusion between the CIA and the Iranian government in an arms deal that would free U.S. hostages and fund the anti-Sandinista Contras.

Although the Iran-Contra scandal served to hamstring many of Reagan's more ambitious undertakings, his covert operations did not end after the scandal broke in 1987. In 1989, successor George H. W. Bush conducted military operations against Panama's dictator, General Manuel Noriega, who was captured and imprisoned. In this action, as in the Gulf War of 1991, the actual firing of shots followed a long period of covert operations.

As with Carter, the last Democrat in the White House, President William J. Clinton pledged openness, and presented his as an administration that was above the practice of covert operations. This was a relatively easy claim to make, since the end of the Cold War obviated many of Reagan's and Bush's undertakings. Furthermore, like the Church Committee hearings, the Iran-Contra affair served to bring the operations of the intelligence establishment under public scrutiny. Clinton's administration, however, was one characterized by virtually unprecedented military adventurism, under a variety guises: humanitarian support in Somalia, nation-building in Haiti, and countering an aggressive, genocidal force in Bosnia and Yugoslavia. In each case, military action would have been much more difficult and costly without covert operations providing advance intelligence.

Eight months into his administration, President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The twentieth century was over, and with it both the Cold War and the post-Cold War era. The war on terror began with the bombing of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, but by then, the CIA and other organizations had long since paved the way with extensive covert operations on the ground.



Borosage, Robert, and John D. Marks. The CIA File. New York: Grossman, 1976.

Knott, Stephen F. Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Marshall, Jonathan, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Haapiseva-Hunter. The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era. Boston: South End Press, 1987.

Prados, John. President's Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations since World War II. New York: William Morrow, 1986.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, third edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.


Bay of Pigs
Church Committee
CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
Vietnam War