Covert Operations and Resolution Planning

Covert operations are crippled without access to the end products of intelligence. That is one reason the CIA’s efforts to overthrow foreign governments have been so risky and unsuccessful.


Ethical considerations involving the means and ends of covert action are complex. Sabotaging a crime ring is not likely to provoke the same moral objections as sabotaging a democratically elected government.


While debates about the morality of covert action often focus on whether such actions are compatible with democracy, a more practical question concerns how to organize and oversee covert action. Specifically, it is important to decide what strategies and tactics work best with democratic institutions, and what limitations they should impose. It is also necessary to examine whether current procedures provide adequate protection against abuses.

A careful cost benefit analysis is critical to responsible use of covert intervention. If, as some have argued, covert operations usually involve costly and short term sacrifices to achieve marginal, transient gains, the system may need to be overhauled or abolished.

The National Security Archive is posting a series of electronic briefing books that illustrate some of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert operations during the Cold War, drawn from its CIA Set III documents. While a few of these operations involve paramilitary activities, most are of a more official and political nature, attempting to influence foreign policy.

In order to undertake a covert action, the President must first determine, through a document known as a presidential finding, that it is needed to support identifiable foreign policy objectives. He must then notify Congress within forty eight hours after making the finding. The CIA director and the heads of all departments, agencies and entities involved in the covert action are also required to keep congressional intelligence committees fully and currently informed.


Observation is the act of studying a group or community without interfering with their natural behaviour. It can be overt or covert, and it is often used in social sciences such as ethnography. Covert observation requires researchers to gain the trust of their subject, or even to pretend to be a part of the community they are studying. This is not something all researchers are capable of, and it can lead to ethical issues. When simply observing isn’t enough, researchers might opt to enlist the help of an informant. This type of research allows the researcher to ask questions and receive answers while avoiding known interference. The information gained by this method is more accurate and trustworthy than that which is obtained through overt participant observation.


A key component of covert operations is the transfer of resources and/or personnel to a foreign entity. Whether non-violent like support of the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1980s or more violent such as sabotage or paramilitary support of an armed uprising against an opposing state, the goal is to have an effect on another country without revealing the originating government’s role. This requires a degree of plausible deniability, which is why covert operations are typically conducted in secret and involving limited resources.

Regardless of the strategy, it is crucial that a policymaker is aware of how covert action fits into broader strategic frameworks and understands its limitations. An insufficient understanding of this dynamic can yield unintended results, such as the case of cyber-enabled espionage by China and Russia that led to the theft of tens of thousands of computers. Escalation is also a risk, although Poznansky finds scant evidence that leaders of the examined cases feared their actions would trigger a escalatory spiral.

For interdiction covered operations, such as those involving drug trafficking, several scholars have developed models to examine the trade-offs involved in deploying resources to target specific locations. For example, Malaviya, Rainwater, and Sharkey (2012) solved a flow minimization problem over a city-level network of heroin suppliers while Pietz and Royset (2015) and Jabarzare, Zolfagharinia, and Najafi (2020) did the same for an asymmetric attacker-defender scenario. Developing these kinds of models, which are often used in practice by interdiction officers, can help to improve decision-making in this domain.


The agencies received several comments on the proposed rule that addressed strategies and tactics covered operations may employ to circumvent resolution planning requirements. Two commenters suggested that the agencies should amend the final rule to provide triennial reduced filers with a greater opportunity to request reconsideration of their currently identified critical operation prior to their next resolution plan submission date. The agencies did not adopt these suggestions. Instead, the agencies continued to rely on the indicator-based approach they had proposed, with some tailoring, to identify firms that have total consolidated assets of $100 billion or more and less than $250 billion and that remain subject to Category II, III, or IV standards.

Like the proposal, the final rule identifies foreign GSIBs and nonbank financial companies supervised by the Board by measuring their risk-based indicators or combined U.S. operations, including branches, agencies, and offices. The agencies also continue to impose the same categories to determine whether a firm must submit a full resolution plan or targeted resolution plan. Recognizing that financial markets and firms change over time, the agencies propose to review all critical operations identifications on a periodic basis, both in light of new developments and as part of their ongoing risk assessment processes.