Covert operations are a necessary–though occasionally controversial–tool of policy. Whether by training proxies or attempting Sun-Tzu-like coups, they can alter the political composition of hostile states.
But the delta between means and end is often small. Even cyber-enabled espionage is mostly a means to a greater end: stealing information that can help states gain a strategic advantage.
Covert operations are activities conducted by the United States to achieve national objectives without revealing the US involvement. They are distinct from clandestine operations in that a covert operation must have an identifiable product, while a clandestine operation does not.
Covert operations have been used by the United States for centuries, dating back to George Washington’s efforts to ransom captured Americans from Barbary states. Since 1974, covert operations have been subject to congressional oversight.
Although the term “covert” implies clandestine activity, the reality is that open, peaceful means of pursuing external policy are called diplomacy and those that use force or threat of force are called strategy. The term “covert” is used to distinguish the latter from a more specific set of actions, such as sabotage, assassinations and support for coups d’etat or subversion.
A covert operation must have a purpose. Its sponsor must know that it will not be able to conceal the entire activity, but should have the ability to provide plausible deniability. Covert operations can include non-violent subversion, such as creating disaffection among the target state’s population or weakening its will to affect world affairs, as well as violent activities, such as sabotage and paramilitary support of an armed insurgency.
The CIA’s clandestine operations are an instrument of policy, in peacetime as well as war. They are often more effective than empty threats or accepting a bad political outcome. They allow policymakers to achieve objectives when direct military action is not feasible or desirable.
The Reagan administration placed a renewed emphasis on covert operations. However, Congressional committees exercised greater watchfulness over the CIA’s clandestine activities after the Iran-Contra affair. This led to the Hughes-Ryan Act in 1974, which requires that the President certify that each covert operation is vitally important to national security and report to Congress its scope and description. These changes contributed to a decline in the number of covert operations.
Covert operations are usually intended to achieve a specific outcome in another country with concealed means and intent. They may be non-violent, such as creating disaffection in the target state’s population or weakening its will to affect the world around it. Alternatively, they may involve a paramilitary force that engages in armed combat against the target state’s military forces. During the Cold War, many covert interventions attempted to overthrow hostile governments by taking Sun Tzu’s advice of finding dissenting elements within the state’s armed services and turning them into strategic instruments in our own hands. Unfortunately, most failed to achieve their aims. For example, the 1961 Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba not only failed to topple Fidel Castro’s government but also brought the United States closer to the Soviet Union and helped precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Because of the sensitivity of covert operations, they must be secret and often require a degree of stealth. This puts a premium on plausible deniability, requiring the head of the originating agency to be able to say they did not know about or approve the operation.
Unlike the CIA’s more traditional spying activities, covert action involves paramilitary training and support of foreign insurgents or resistance movements. These operations often include the use of lethal force to achieve policy objectives. The secret nature of covert action hinders attempts to assess their effectiveness. The CIA’s official doctrine is “plausible deniability,” which aims to ensure that officials cannot be blamed for the results of an operation.
As the challenge of worldwide Soviet hegemony emerged as the primary threat to national security, the CIA and Special Forces pursued many covert operations, often with varying degrees of success. The documents in this collection, obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act and extended archival research, illustrate how these operations were planned and approved during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies.
As the documents reveal, a senior interagency group—dubbed the Special Group or 5412—acted as the high command for this clandestine war. Although this group included representatives from the NSC, the PSB, and the departmental offices originally delegated to advise the Office of Covert Action (OPC), the final authority rested with the Director of Central Intelligence and the President.
Covert operations have a cost-benefit analysis that must be taken into account. Even the most successful operations carry costs and must be carefully aligned with policy to ensure that they do not have unintended consequences. For example, if an operation is targeting enemies of the state, its failure must not compromise that policy, such as the continued existence of Israel. Aside from the simple notion of blowback, covert operations must be vetted thoroughly by Congress and must not violate the spirit of the law, as proved by Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal.
The main benefit of covert operations is that they can influence foreign policy without exposing the intervener to political or military reprisal. However, this can be difficult to achieve, especially in cases where a covert intervention fails. For example, the Bay of Pigs failed to remove Fidel Castro from power and brought Cuba closer to the Soviet Union, ultimately leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, even successful covert operations may have negative repercussions in the long term. For example, the Stuxnet computer worm caused the temporary disruption of centrifuges at Natanz in Iran, but did not have lasting effects on the Iranian nuclear program.