Covert Operations

Covert operations have a long history in literature, films and television. They have been used in both wars, as well as in the pursuit of terrorists and drug traffickers.

심부름센터ations have a long history in literature, films and television. They have been used in both wars, as 심부름센터

In general, they involve secret activities sponsored by the United States against foreign governments or nonstate entities. These operations must be planned so that the sponsor can plausibly deny responsibility if it becomes known.


One of the primary arguments for covert action is that it can achieve foreign policy goals without putting American lives, funds and prestige on the line. In other words, it can promote democracy and economic development in areas where direct intervention would impose costs in those arenas. But critics point to a record that includes bloody tactics, right wing death squads and human rights violations. Moreover, they argue that even the short term successes often turn out to be failures in the long run.

The current oversight system, enacted after the Iran-Contra scandal, requires that any covert operation be justified to Congress in a written presidential finding and the President is required to notify congressional intelligence committees of all covert operations prior to their execution. While these are important steps, it is important to note that the congressional intelligence committees do not have a formal veto on any covert operation that the President proposes. This means that legislators can play a variety of cards to discourage the administration from pursuing unwise policies, including threatening the next year’s budget or bringing the issue to the floor of Congress.

The sensitive nature of covert action makes it particularly difficult to reform. In many ways, the best thing that can be done is to create guidelines that limit its use and avoid the destructive cycle that emerged during the Cold War.


Covert operations, like all tools of statecraft, should be employed as an integral part of broader national policies. As a result, it is common to see them criticized when they are not framed within the context of policy. However, critics should not be allowed to dismiss covert action as a half measure, especially in the face of an adversary that is unlikely to respond to empty threats with anything other than more force.

Whether non-violent or violent, covert operations seek to shape foreign events with concealed means and intent. Generally, they are aimed at either weakening the government of an opponent or steering surreptitiously its decision making. Those seeking to do the former may seek out taskable agents of their target government or, as in the case of the Hezbollah operations, recruit what Lenin termed ‘useful idiots’ — influential apologists who can be duped into propagandising for the attacker with ‘plausible deniability’.

CIA documents often reveal the details of covert activities, from small-scale support for dissident groups to large-scale insurgent campaigns. Such support typically takes a variety of forms, from direct financial assistance to supplying arms or training. Some efforts, such as those of the director of central intelligence in Poland, William Casey, were designed to leverage religious institutions in a country ruled by atheist communism. Other covert actions, such as the Bay of Pigs effort, sought to neutralise hostile governments through coups d’état.


The sensitivity of covert operations requires special attention to the oversight procedures for these actions. As the Levin Center points out, after some early successes with covert action, some administrations began to view it as a “magic bullet.” A system of supervision that prevents such misperceptions must balance the risks and benefits of this kind of intervention.

Historically, such oversight has been accomplished by informal talks between the Director of Central Intelligence and some members of Congress. After the revelations of Seymour Hersh in 1974, relations grew more formal and Congress passed the Hughes-Ryan Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act requiring that the President report, through a written document known as a finding, all covert activities to both House and Senate intelligence committees before undertaking them.

But even this framework is not without its problems, and the Levin Center recommends that an investigation be made of the effectiveness of current oversight procedures. For example, as the set of documents posted here demonstrates, White House oversight can be easily distracted by non-intelligence matters such as the presidential diary or the notes of meetings with the President (Document 1). Oversight procedures also must consider how sensitive the media is to the implications of a covert operation, since it has the potential to undermine an important effort to influence foreign policy.

Human Considerations

Covert operations often involve a great deal of human resources. Recruiting agents and operatives from abroad can be difficult, and recruiting them in a hostile environment can be dangerous. It is essential to be able to trust these individuals with your lives and your nation’s security. This requires careful screening of candidates and training to ensure the safety and welfare of these people in the field.

Moreover, covert operations have the potential to sway the political composition of foreign governments. The Tehran and Guatemala coups are examples of covert actions that decided major political issues. More modest covert operations, such as the American support of the Polish trade union Solidarity in the 1980s, may simply influence a government’s decision-making calculus.

The sensitive nature of covert operations makes them particularly vulnerable to criticism by the media. This can detract from the success of a covert operation as well as the morale of the agency carrying out the action.

The delicate nature of covert operations also makes it essential to weigh the effects on human beings in other countries. If, for example, CIA personnel are captured or killed in the course of conducting a covert operation, the credibility and reputation of the intelligence community can be severely damaged. This can undermine the effectiveness of future operations and may cause political leaders to refuse to pursue a policy with CIA backing.