Covert Operations

Covert operations are the basis of numerous novels, movies and TV shows such as Mission: Impossible, Alias and Prison Break. They are also a major source of controversy and debate.


Ideally, any reforms of the present system should improve oversight without increasing the risk of abuse. But this is a difficult proposition to implement.

Defining Covert Operations

In covert operations, the CIA shifts out of its ideal role as an information agency and becomes an action agency. By taking on a direct political mission, it advocates policy options. It also skews intelligence analysis, which should remain objective. The fact that the president must personally authorize covert actions makes it hard to avoid politicizing the whole enterprise.

For the most part, CIA covert activities involve supporting foreign organizations that share America’s interests. During the Cold War, for example, this support included a wide range of propaganda activities in Europe—propaganda radio broadcasts from CIA-funded facilities (like Radio Free Europe), support to anticommunist labor unions and parties, and financial disbursements to private firms and organizations whose interests aligned with those of the U.S. CIA covert actions sometimes involved armed action as well.

Generally, these operations were illegal in the target country and were often in violation of U.S. law. They could include sabotage, assassinations, support for coups d’état, and subversion. Some covert actions have been very successful, but they are inevitably subject to moral, strategic, and empirical compromises that may erode their original advantages. Covert operations are also subject to the whims of a president, as was clear from the Iran-Contra crisis and other difficulties attributed to highhandedness by William Casey. They are an important dimension of national power, but they must be carefully considered when employing them.

Planning Covert Operations

Covert operations may involve one or many of a broad menu of activities. They may be non-violent and attempt to influence the politics of another country by creating disaffection among the population, or they might involve sabotage or even paramilitary support for an armed insurgency against a target state. Generally, they have one overarching goal: to fulfill the mission objectives without either the sponsor or its agents being known.

A major challenge is to balance the need for secrecy with the need for efficient planning of covert operations. Secrets, by their nature, slow down planning and reduce the amount of vetting that can take place in advance. The need to plan in secret also means that covert actions tend to be much more expensive than their overt counterparts.

Various proposals have been made to improve the capabilities of the U.S. for carrying out covert operations in a post-Cold War world. Some have focused on improving the relationship between CIA’s Directorate of Operations and the rest of the Intelligence Community. Others have looked at the need to review existing covert actions. While a few meetings have taken place in the past where this has been discussed, no clear regimen has emerged.

One important lesson from the Bay of Pigs and a series of revelations in the early 1980s was that separation between analytical and operational functions harmed the effectiveness of covert action. The analysts could have provided the operators with valuable topographical information and warned them of risks that would have otherwise been unknown to them.

Conducting Covert Operations

Covert operations can involve a wide range of activities. Generally, they are designed to fulfill objectives without revealing who sponsored them. They can be carried out through a variety of means, such as the use of front organizations and the creation of secret societies. They can also be conducted through the training of proxies or by supporting dissident groups abroad. In the latter case, they may be provided with money, equipment or publishing capabilities.

During World War II, belligerents developed the ability to engage in political warfare on a grand scale. The United States, for example, created an extensive system to furnish support for publications and other propaganda. This included the printing of books promoting anticommunism and other themes. Moreover, it provided the Polish trade union, Solidarity, with money and printing facilities to help undermine communist control of Poland’s economy.

In the aftermath of World War II, President John F. Kennedy established rules to ensure that decisions about covert action were made in accordance with the national interest. He created a committee of deputy secretaries, the 5412/2 group, to oversee these efforts. The group became known as the Special Group or, later, the 40 Committee, and it began to require a more rigorous vetting of proposals and reporting to Congress.

This process of oversight was further enhanced during the Reagan administration by a new emphasis on covert operations in Latin America and Afghanistan. This approach arguably led to the Iran-Contra affair and increased congressional scrutiny of executive authority over covert action.

Monitoring Covert Operations

While there are many different covert operations, they all share a common thread: the need for a concealed plan and means. Many of these covert operations are carried out through front organizations, which are staffed by agents working under a false name. The work of these front groups often overlaps with the activity of the agency conducting the covert operation.

Non-violent covert operations can include activities such as creating disaffection among the population of a target country, weakening that government’s capacity to affect the world around it, or steering surreptitiously its decision-making. Violent covert operations may involve sabotage, assassination, paramilitary support for a coup d’etat, or the direct participation of forces in an armed conflict.

Whether conducted in peacetime or wartime, a successful covert operation must have a level of stealth that can be achieved without anyone knowing the identity of its sponsor. The term “plausible deniability” refers to the ability of the head of a governing body to deny that it commissioned the operation or even knew about it.

While many Americans have a deep prejudice against the use of covert action in the post-Cold War era, it is important to recognize that the world is a dangerous place and that the US must be prepared to fight when necessary. As a result, the tools in our bag of foreign policy are changing. A careful re-examination of the role of covert action can determine its suitability in the post Cold War era and provide for its future as we grapple with global threats.