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date: 01 February 2023

Covert Actionfree

Covert Actionfree

  • Jennifer D. KibbeJennifer D. KibbeDepartment of Government, Franklin & Marshall College


Covert action presents a potential policy for decision makers who want something quicker or more muscular than diplomacy but less expensive and obtrusive than military force. In contrast with intelligence, which entails collecting and analyzing information, covert action is an active instrument of foreign policy. The three main categories of covert action include propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action. Another separate category is economic action, which involves destabilizing the target state’s economy in some way. Because of the inherent secrecy of covert action, outside scholars have no way of knowing how much they do or do not know about the topic at hand and it also makes it hard to verify the information, since the information comes from a variety of sources. Covert action literature is particularly strong in case studies of particular operations. There is also a well-developed subsection within the field that focuses on covert action since the end of the Cold War, the role that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) played during World War II, and covert actions undertaken by other states. However, there are several issues in the covert action literature. These issues include the assessment of the success or failure of particular operations and of the policy instrument as a whole, the tangible and intangible costs incurred by covert action, the ethical questions raised by conducting covert actions as well as the particular methods used and its impact on democracy, the oversight of covert action, and the evolution of US law covering covert action.


  • Security Studies


Covert action is the aspect of intelligence about which most has been written and yet, somewhat counterintuitively, it remains the least well understood. The main reason for this disjuncture is that covert action includes operations such as assassinations and overthrowing other governments, which are both the “sexiest” as well as the most controversial and morally questionable parts of the intelligence enterprise. Consequently, the covert action literature in general has historically been distorted by the focus on these types of operations, although this characteristic has been increasingly remedied over the last 15–20 years as the field has become more sophisticated. This problem has also meant that many of the complexities involved in covert action have only been conveyed in the more recent literature, leading to a somewhat uneven body of work for the topic as a whole. Another imbalance in the field is that it has been dominated by material about the US, a result of the combination of Washington’s avid use of covert operations during the Cold War and its (relatively) more accessible information regarding such operations. While this imbalance is necessarily reflected in this review of the literature, there have been a number of quality studies about several other states’ operations as well, which are discussed below.

This review begins by exploring the issues and categories involved in defining covert action, as well as the ramifications of the inherent secrecy of the topic. Next, it discusses the major categories of works in the overall field. After presenting the general lay of the land, the review explores several issues that have played a prominent role in the covert action literature, including the question of how to gauge success and failure, the costs of covert operations, the ethical questions raised by conducting them, and questions of law, oversight and policy making.

Defining Covert Action

The first and most important task in any discussion of covert action is to clarify what it is and what it is not. It is important to note at the outset that the very term “covert action” is a uniquely American one, and a relatively recent one at that, having evolved since World War II. Covert action was not even defined in US law until the passage of the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act, which defines it as activity meant “to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly” (i.e., preserving plausible deniability) (50 USC 413(b)(e)). Thus, it has been described as the “quiet option” or the “third option,” presenting a potential policy route for decision makers who want something quicker or more muscular than diplomacy but less expensive and obtrusive than military force. While many, if not most, other states have conducted such operations, they have tended to use different terminology, with the Soviets employing the term “active measures” (activinyye meropriatia, which included some overt actions as well as covert), for example, and the British term changing over time, from “special operations” to “special political action” to “disruptive action” (Scott 2004). It is a measure of the US dominance of the literature that “covert action” has come to be seen as the generic term.

Although it is often portrayed as one of the four intelligence disciplines (along with collection, analysis, and counterintelligence), covert action is, strictly speaking, not intelligence at all because it is an active instrument of foreign policy, whereas intelligence entails collecting and analyzing information for policy makers to use in conducting foreign policy. Thus, covert action blurs the dividing line between intelligence and policy that many feel is essential to preserving the integrity of intelligence analysis (Steiner 2006). The concern is that blurring that line creates situations where the CIA is responsible for both analyzing the need for and the efficacy of covert action in a particular situation as well as conducting the operation itself, with the attendant risk that its role in the operational phase may affect its independence in the analytical task.

William Daugherty, a career CIA officer, notes that another key difference between covert action and the other intelligence disciplines is that it can be more controversial than the others in the relationship between two states: “For while target governments will accept being spied upon as a natural adjunct of a nation’s foreign or national security policy […] covert action involves the deliberate, planned intervention in the sovereign rights of a nation,” thus violating both international law and the United Nations Charter, which prohibit intervention in the internal affairs of other states (Daugherty 2004:1819).

Categories of Covert Action

Another way in which covert action has sometimes been misunderstood or mischaracterized is in terms of what activities the term encompasses. As mentioned above, many authors and journalists have tended to focus on the more controversial, high-profile operations such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation and the US overthrows of regimes in Iran and Guatemala, while ignoring the subtler ways in which governments try secretly to influence each other’s actions, such as distributing propaganda or funneling money to political parties. Most scholars have traditionally cited three main categories of covert action (propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action, although they are often used in conjunction with one another), while Johnson (1989a) adds economic action as a separate category and Daugherty (2004) argues that it may be time to add a new one for information warfare (now known as information operations).

Propaganda, known in the US early in the Cold War as psychological warfare and now increasingly being referred to as psychological operations, involves the dissemination of information specifically designed to influence people’s opinions and behavior. It can be done overtly, as was the case for example with the United States Information Agency (USIA) during the Cold War. This variety is known as “white” propaganda. “Gray” propaganda is the dissemination of official policy lines through unacknowledged outlets. The best-known examples from the Cold War are those of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast anticommunist, pro-democracy messages to Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and to people in the Soviet Union, respectively. Finally, “black” propaganda is the use of disinformation and outright deception to manipulate public opinion. One of the CIA’s most successful black propaganda operations was its effort in Guatemala in 1954, when it faked broadcasts from a dissident radio station claiming that a large insurgent army was crossing the border and starting a revolution, effectively scaring President Arbenz into resigning (Turner 2007). The Soviet Union was equally busy in the propaganda department during the Cold War, although it focused more on planting disinformation in neutral media, as with its late 1960s placement of a forged letter in the Bombay Free Press Journal recounting Washington’s use of bacteriological weapons in Vietnam and Thailand, a story that was then picked up by the London Times and other Western media (Andrew and Gordievsky 1990:503).

There are numerous studies of propaganda operations (see, for example, Aldrich et al. 2000; Saunders 2000), among which the most thorough account of US operations during the Cold War is Wilford’s The Mighty Wurlitzer (2008). Wilford’s recounting of how the CIA tried to shape America’s image in the rest of world by influencing the content of Hollywood movies, funding abstract expressionist art and supporting a wide variety of cultural, student, women’s and labor organizations serves as a useful reminder that propaganda can come in subtler forms than merely the straight dissemination of information.

Political action includes a range of activities that constitute more direct involvement in the political process of the target country, from the provision of polling services and campaign advisers to discrediting political opponents and funneling support to political parties, media outlets, unions, or front organizations (Treverton 1987; Coleman 1989; O’Brien 1995; Saunders 2000; Wilford 2008). One oft-cited example of political action stems from the early Cold War years when the US successfully intervened in the 1948 Italian elections by giving assistance to the anticommunist Christian Democrats, a case that Treverton argues sets a precedent of “election projects,” which have been as important as any operations undertaken by the CIA (Treverton 1987:20). The KGB was also active in Cold War political action, seeing it, in conjunction with propaganda, as one of the key tools of Soviet foreign policy. Moscow supported a wide variety of parties, such as the MPLA in Angola, and front organizations, such as the World Council of Peace (Andrew and Gordievsky 1990; Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999, 2005). One of the Soviet Union’s most successful covert operations involved political action, when the Monarchist Association of Central Russia, better known as “The Trust,” conducted an elaborate deception operation aimed at penetrating White Russian émigré groups (Andrew and Gordievsky 1990:71–8). Two other states that have been particularly active in covert political action are apartheid-era South Africa (O’Brien 2001a) and Israel (Raviv and Melman 1990; Thomas 1999).

Economic action involves destabilizing the target state’s economy in some way. This could involve directly attacking crops, as the US did to Cuba in the 1960s, spreading disinformation to raise fears of economic instability, trying to manipulate another country’s currency, or convincing companies and other countries not to invest in the target state and disrupting international lines of credit, as the US did in Chile in the early 1970s (Treverton 1987; Sigmund 1993).

Paramilitary action involves the use of armed forces (either regular or irregular) employing unconventional military means to influence events in the target state. Covert paramilitary activity can range from training foreign military and security forces in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency techniques to assisting coup d’états, conducting direct action raids, and supporting large groups of rebels against their governments. One notorious (and notably non-superpower-related) example of a direct action raid is the 1985 attack on the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior by the French secret services in their attempt to undermine nuclear testing protests (Porch 1995).

The quintessential, albeit failed, example of a larger operation at the more involved end of the paramilitary continuum is the Bay of Pigs. These covert actions are clearly a type of hybrid operation, in that they are effectively military action, although they are covert in that the sponsorship of the attacking state is supposed to remain unknown. With operations this big, however, it is rare that they remain covert, whether successful, as in Reagan’s backing of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, or unsuccessful, as in Eisenhower’s hapless 1958 Bay of Pigs prequel in Indonesia, when the attempt to overthrow Achmed Sukarno ended with the shooting down of a CIA pilot (Kahin and Kahin 1995). Thus, as Treverton (2007) notes, they really should be called “overt” covert operations.

One of the most controversial types of covert action is also included under the rubric of paramilitary operations: assassination (Thomas 2000; Soderblöm 2004). Probably the best-known examples are the CIA’s ill-fated attempts on Fidel Castro’s life during Operation Mongoose (United States Senate 1975a), but this method has also been used extensively by Israel (Byman 2006), which established its Committee X for expressly this purpose after the 1972 Munich massacre (Kahana 2007), as well as by the Soviet Union and South Africa under apartheid (O’Brien 2001b).

Finally, by far the newest category of covert action, having developed only in the 1990s, information operations involve actions to affect an adversary’s information and information systems while defending one’s own. Being such a new branch of the field, the literature on information operations is still evolving and currently consists largely of research conducted by the military as part of its effort to master what is widely seen as a critical future arena. Some useful sources that address the range of issues raised by this new subfield include Armistead (2003), Jones and Remenyi (2004), who bring together papers presented at a European conference on information operations, and Barrett, B.M. (2005), who focuses on China’s role in this new strategic area.

One last definitional point about covert action that should be kept in mind is that it can be and has been used both against other governments (including allied ones) as well as to help other governments (although economic action has normally been used only against opponents). While some critics of covert action point primarily to the actions used against opponents and some defenders point primarily to the operations used to strengthen friendly states, a thorough understanding of covert action should take both into account.

The Secrecy Problem

An important characteristic of the covert action literature involves the complex web of issues raised by the inherent secrecy of the topic. When reading (or writing) an account of a particular operation or an assessment of covert action over time, the first problem is that outside scholars (i.e., those who are not part of the intelligence community) have no way of knowing how much they do or do not know about the topic at hand. In fact, given the strict compartmentalization of information about some covert operations, this is quite possibly a problem for many within the community as well. This problem looms large in discussions of the overall success or failure of covert action. Critics point to a string of notorious failures, including the Bay of Pigs, the operation in Indonesia, and the almost comical attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, as evidence of covert action’s lack of efficacy. Other scholars, however, highlight the fact that the public is much more likely to hear about failed operations than successful ones, since covert action is designed to keep sponsorship secret, and thus maintaining a scorecard based on what is in the public domain is an inherently unfair test (Daugherty 2004; Scott 2004).

While this is a fair point, there is some disagreement over just how much information about covert operations remains secret (Scott 2004). In his study of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6), Dorril maintains that there is much more in the public domain regarding British operations than anyone has realized and that “[t]he reality is that secrets are increasingly difficult to protect, and it would not be a great exaggeration to suggest that there are no real secrets any more” (Dorril 2000:xiv). In a similar vein, Garthoff (2004) argues that although we cannot know what percentage of intelligence activity from the Cold War has become public, the likelihood is that we are aware of most of the patterns and important cases. Aldrich, on the other hand, has a more pessimistic view, contending that although substantial records from the Cold War have been released, “much more remains closed, while further material has disappeared in an organized whirl of destruction” (Aldrich 2002:7; see also Ferris 1995).

There has, indeed, been considerable progress in the declassification of US archival records on Cold War covert operations. Even though the George W. Bush administration considerably slowed the progress that had been achieved during the Clinton years, US declassification continues to outpace that of other states, including Britain where the continuing hold of the Official Secrets Act has been one reason the literature on covert action is much more developed on the US side. The advances in declassification have provided material for covert action researchers working on particular operations and resulted in certain small boons, such as the 2003 publication of a retrospective volume in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series on the action taken in 1954 in Guatemala (US Department of State 2003). Nonetheless, covert action analysts must always keep in mind that decisions to declassify documents are fundamentally political ones, inextricably intertwined with the question of how history is written, and no history is potentially more controversial than that of covert operations. Thus, the executive branch may well have an interest in trying to shape that history. Moreover, certain key documents, even on declassified operations, remain classified and there is at least one known case, that of the 1953 operation in Iran, where the CIA has admitted intentionally destroying virtually all of the relevant records of the operation (Eisendrath 2000:3).

Beyond the accessibility of archival documents, there is also quite a lot of information available to the public now in the form of oral histories, memoirs, biographies, and interviews. In the case of this kind of information as well, however, the covert action researcher needs to be mindful of why the information is being made public. Is it merely for the historical record, or is there some other agenda at work, be it personal, bureaucratic or political? An early example of this phenomenon is the interview that CIA Director Allen Dulles gave to the Saturday Evening Post boasting about the CIA’s successful action in Iran (Little 2004). Clearly, it was part of creating the myth of the all-powerful CIA covert operators and, needless to say, his account did not include how close the operation came to failing. Thus, on the one hand, it was valuable in lifting the curtain partway on a particular operation but, on the other, that partial story was almost worse than no information at all, in the sense that it helped create an ethos that CIA could do no wrong, which, beyond its distortion of public knowledge, did not serve the agency well in planning for future operations.

Another problem stemming from the secrecy of covert action is that much of the other information relied on by journalists and researchers comes from a variety of sources that make it hard, if not impossible, to verify the information, such as leaks, whistleblowers, defectors, and anonymous sources. Scott (2004) presents a thoughtful discussion of the various issues raised by this problem, as well as strategies for ameliorating it.

Another aspect of the availability of information regarding covert action is to recognize that the literature on the topic is penned, in large part, by two broad groups of people: outside scholars and journalists, and current or, more likely, former members of the intelligence community. Aside from individual authors’ relative talents, there is an obvious tradeoff. Former analysts and agents are much more likely to know and understand the inner workings of the community but, on the other hand, they are more likely to have a vested interest in the material in terms of protecting their personal reputations and those of their agencies. Moreover, members of the US intelligence community must submit their manuscripts to the CIA for vetting. While this is officially, and understandably, for the purpose of protecting classified material, it does create the opportunity for censorship for political reasons as well.

Finally, as Scott points out, studying covert action can include a whole other level of smoke and mirrors as well: “Among the more perplexing questions: when we think we are learning of secret intervention are we in fact the target of covert action and the recipient of disinformation or propaganda?” (Scott 2004:327) Although it is illegal for the CIA to disseminate propaganda in the US, other countries’ intelligence services could have some reason to spread information about a particular operation, or propaganda issued by the CIA elsewhere could find its way back to the US population by accident, in a process known as “blowback.”

The Overall Field

At the core of the covert action literature are a number of analytical studies done over the years that both explain the elements and purpose of covert action and examine the range of issues that arise in conducting it, from its relationship to both policy and intelligence to questions of democracy, ethics, implications, and how to evaluate outcomes. Blackstock (1964) was the first to take this more scholarly, analytical approach to covert action. Based on cases from Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and the United States, he highlighted the problems posed by the adoption of covert action as a policy, including most policy makers’ lack of understanding of the subject, the undermining of operations by intra-agency bureaucratic infighting, the overestimation of their effectiveness, and the problems that failed operations can pose for US foreign policy in general.

Treverton’s (1987) analysis of covert action is informed by his experience as a staff member of the Church Committee, as well as by the Iran-Contra scandal. He uses the cases of Iran, Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, Chile, Angola, and Iran-Contra in his effort to assess the benefits and liabilities of covert action as a policy tool. In presenting an even-handed critique, Treverton acknowledges that covert operations may be necessary at times, but warns that they will most likely not remain secret and will often involve unintended consequences and long-term costs that, because of the secrecy in which the policy is conceived, tend to be worse than those for overt public policies. After evaluating the history and efficacy of US covert action policies, Godson (1995) arrives at a different conclusion. Godson is more of an advocate of covert action and, where Treverton calls for more openness and congressional oversight, Godson criticizes Congress for having too much influence.

Berkowitz and Goodman’s (1998) analysis focuses on the issue of deniability as the single most important characteristic of covert action, addressing two central questions: when does an operation absolutely have to be done covertly, and what does covertness imply for a democratic government?

A number of other authors have approached covert action analytically, but done so within the context of larger studies of intelligence or of the CIA as a whole (Ransom 1970; Rositzke 1977; Johnson 1989a; Johnson 1996).

Another group of authors has approached the topic of covert action through chronological studies that focus more on chronicling the various operations of the CIA, accompanied by varying degrees of analysis. It is largely in this branch of the literature where one encounters the more sensationalist treatments of covert action, which tend to rely more on journalistic accounts than archival evidence and tend more toward heavy criticism and less objective analysis (see, for example, Blum 1986). There are, however, some very good treatments of the topic in this branch of the field, among the best of which are Wise and Ross (1964), Prados (1986), Ranelagh (1986), Jeffreys-Jones (1989) and Andrew (1995). The most comprehensive, because it is the most recent and was able to take advantage of the progress in declassification, is Prados’s Safe for Democracy (2006), which even those who take issue with its critical assessment of covert action applaud for its magisterial coverage of the archival record.

Although the literature on US covert action is well developed overall, there is something of a gap, because although the US has used covert action from its very earliest days, one would be hard pressed to know it since the great majority of the literature focuses on the period after World War II and the creation of the CIA in 1947. There are a few notable exceptions, however. In his broad study of US covert action, Andrew (1995) gives some historical background, covering the span from George Washington to the twentieth century in his first chapter. Carter (2000) provides another account, while the most detailed treatment can be found in Knott’s Secret and Sanctioned (1996).

Case Studies

One area where the literature is particularly strong is in case studies of particular operations. Here, historians (in large part) have achieved impressive advances in bringing knowledge to light through the tireless use of the Freedom of Information Act as well as the archival records of non-intelligence agencies that were involved in policy decisions but have traditionally not been as strict as the CIA about classifying their records, such as the State Department and administrations’ presidential records. Not surprisingly, the best-known cases have the best-developed literature, only a sample of which can be mentioned here: Iran (Roosevelt 1979; Gasiorowski 1987; Bill 1988); Guatemala (Immerman 1982; Schlesinger and Kinzer 1982; Gleijeses 1991); Bay of Pigs (Wyden 1979; Higgins 1987; Gleijeses 1995; Blight and Kornbluh 1998); Chile (Sigmund 1993; Kornbluh 2003). Other operations that have been the subject of useful case studies include Indonesia (Kahin and Kahin 1995), British Guiana (Rabe 2005), Afghanistan (Coll 2004), Syria (Little 1990; Lesch 1992), and the Middle East more generally (Little 2004).

Post–Cold War and Post–9/11

The most recent branch of the field is that covering covert action since the end of the Cold War, a period that is effectively divided in two. The first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union saw the CIA fighting to retain its covert action authority in the face of the resulting severe budget cuts and questioning of whether the United States needed to engage in such controversial action any more. Gradually, the CIA began to justify a continuing need for covert action to enable it to combat the new, post–Cold War threats posed by terrorism, drug trafficking, information warfare, and economic espionage (Berkowitz and Goodman 1998; Johnson 2000). The post–9/11 branch of the field focuses on the role that covert action has played in the “war on terror” (Baer 2002; Clarke 2004), including specific cases such as Afghanistan (Schroen 2005) and the increasing covert responsibilities being assumed by the military’s special operations forces (Kibbe 2004, 2007).


Although much of the covert action literature focuses almost exclusively on the period after the creation of the CIA, there is a well-developed subsection within the field that deals with the role that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) played during World War II. While the early postwar work on the OSS emphasized the dramatic and daring nature of the operations, there have since been a number of studies that have taken a more sober, scholarly approach (for example Smith 1972; Smith 1983; Howard 1990; Warner 2000). The best studies are the more recent ones that are well grounded in the declassified OSS archives (Jakub 1999; Mauch and Riemer 2003). There have also been a number of studies of the significant role played by women in the OSS (for example McIntosh 1998).

Non-US Covert Action

Although the literature has been dominated by material on US operations, there have been a number of quality studies of covert actions undertaken by other states. Among the best studies of Soviet covert activity are Richelson (1986), Andrew and Gordievsky (1990), Deriabin and Bagley (1990), and Andrew and Mitrokhin’s two-volume study based on the KGB documents brought out of the Soviet Union by Mitrokhin (1999, 2005). On the UK, the most useful overall studies include Andrew (1985), Dorril (2000), and Aldrich (2002), while Davies (2004) focuses on the interaction between MI6’s organizational structure and operations. There have also been a few overall studies of Israeli covert action (Raviv and Melman 1990; Thomas 1999; Kahana 2007), as well as case studies of several well-known operations, including the Lavon Affair, a sabotage operation against British targets in Egypt aimed at preventing Britain’s pull-out from Suez (Golan 1978), and Operation Plumbat, which involved stealing uranium for Israel’s nuclear reactor (Davenport et al. 1978). Porch (1995) is the best English language treatment of the French secret services, as is Eftimiades (1994) on China’s, although these two (as well as a few of those named above) cover the state’s entire intelligence apparatus and are less focused solely on covert action.

Success v. Failure

One of the many contentious issues regarding covert action discussed in the literature is the assessment of the success or failure of particular operations and of the policy instrument as a whole. The first problem is how to define success. One issue is how long one’s time horizon should be: does success refer to the short term, or should it include what transpires over the long term as well? Critics of covert action frequently point to Iran and Guatemala as examples of operations that succeeded in the short run in terms of achieving their operational goals, but that incurred such political costs over the long term as to cast doubt over whether they should truly be counted as successes. Many now add the Reagan administration’s support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to this list, given the subsequent rise and virulent anti-US posture of Osama bin Laden (Goodman 2000; Prados 2006). On the other hand, some scholars contend that the critics make too much of the long-term cost argument. As Treverton argues with respect to Iran, “the aspects of US policy that loomed so large in the shah’s downfall in 1979,” such as his image as an American client and the waste and corruption stemming from his massive purchases of US weapons, stemmed from Washington’s overt foreign policy in the 20 years after the operation rather than from the coup itself (Treverton 2007:5).

Another, related question in evaluating success is whether it should refer solely to the tactical success of the actual operation, or whether it should also include the wider political ramifications, both domestically and internationally, of the operation (Daugherty 2004). Moreover, how does one judge even just the tactical success of an operation? Treverton (2007) poses an interesting hypothetical question with regard to the US role in the Angolan civil war in 1975. The immediate answer is that it was a failure for the US – the MPLA, supported by the Cubans and Soviets, won and the US role in supporting the MPLA’s opponents was exposed. However, he asks, what if “the initial purpose was more limited – for instance, to raise the price of victory for the MPLA and its Soviet and Cuban backers – then Angola might be counted a short-run success” (Treverton 2007:5). While Treverton notes that US officials did not make that argument either then or later, it is an important nuance to keep in mind when considering the success of covert operations.

A third value tradeoff to be considered is whether one considers success solely in terms of Washington’s interests or whether an estimation of success should take into account the interests of the target nation as well. In British Guiana, the United States and Britain succeeded in ensuring that the candidate they did want for prime minister, Forbes Burnham, beat out the candidate they didn’t, Cheddi Jagan. But, in so doing, they effectively sentenced the newly independent Guyanan nation to 20 years under a brutal dictatorship. Should British Guiana be considered a covert action success? And in judging an operation’s effect on Washington’s interests, does one mean only its interests in the target country, its global interests, or its domestic interests, or some combination of the three?

Others use a still different measuring stick for success, arguing that the key determinant should be whether covert action has actually made a significant difference in the world. Codevilla argues that “[t]here is no evidence that, absent American covert action, the important conflicts of the 1940s and early 1950s, never mind those of subsequent years, would have turned out differently” (1992:241). In a similar vein, Rudgers (2000:261) notes that the abrupt end of the Soviet empire raises the “question as to whether CIA covert actions contributed to the result, or whether they were a sort of narcotic for policy-makers, carried out as an end in themselves merely because they could be.” And Goodman (2000:34), a career CIA analyst and strong critic of covert action, contends that “most covert operations are ‘operations for operations sake,’ undertaken with no reckoning of the result beforehand.”

Daugherty (2004) responds to the “did it have any overall effect?” argument by saying that, while it might be true if one considers only “small wars of liberation” and similar operations, it is a much harder argument to make if one includes political action programs. Indeed, most critics concede that the CIA’s few unadulterated successes have come in the field of propaganda and political action. The operations most often mentioned in this regard are the Agency’s use of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to defeat the heavy censorship imposed in the Soviet bloc, the electoral defeat of the communist party in Italy and the support of the Solidarity labor union and related operations to deter harsh Soviet action in Poland in the 1980s, an operation that Daugherty terms “perhaps the most successful covert action program regardless of standard of measure” (Goodman 2000; Daugherty 2004:4; Prados 2006).

Some scholars point to another nuance of the success/failure question: success at what price? Treverton (2007:4) notes that operational success in both Iran and Guatemala “was purchased at the price of enlarging the intervention,” thus increasing the risk of undermining plausible deniability. The particular danger of covert operations for policy makers is that the initial decisions to conduct them are made on the assumption that they will be relatively quick, cheap, and easy but, as the operations unfold, they often evolve into larger, more costly, and more risky affairs. Once lured in at the beginning, though, it is difficult for a policy maker to close the operation down. Moreover, as was the case in Dulles’s Saturday Evening Post account of the Iranian operation, the caveats about how close both that operation and the one in Guatemala came to failing and what was required for them to succeed were left out of the tales that became CIA legend and were, thus, soon forgotten, a flaw that has been replicated in much of the less scholarly literature about covert action.


Another issue that has been the focus of considerable discussion in the literature is that of the costs incurred by covert action, both tangible and intangible. Prados expands the criticism about the often-expanding costs of successful operations into a wider one of the lack of discipline over the literal costs of covert activities. According to Prados, “available spending data indicate that no major operation of this kind ended within its allotted budget” (2006:635, emphasis in original). The operation in Iran was initially estimated to cost $100,000–200,000, but ended up costing $10 million. Similarly, the Bay of Pigs was initially estimated to cost $2.6 million and ended up costing over $46 million, while Operation Mongoose (the post–Bay of Pigs plan to eliminate Fidel Castro) accounted for another $100 million (Prados 2006).

Beyond dollar amounts, however, the potential costs of covert operations can include a range of factors, some of which, such as the wider ramifications or long-term consequences, have already been noted in the preceding discussion of success and failure. Other notable costs include damage to relations with the target state and the compromising of strategic interests in separate policy areas. As an example of the latter, Goodman (2000) notes how Washington’s desire to funnel weapons to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan required doing so through Pakistan, which meant turning a blind eye to Islamabad’s nuclear weapons development program. Furthermore, as Berkowitz and Goodman point out, “[t]here is always a cost when other governments and the public ultimately find out” about covert operations and, even in those cases where people or policy makers may approve of the policy after the fact, “whether they admit it or not, those who were misled or not informed will trust the US government less from then on” (Berkowitz and Goodman 1998:40).

Ethics and Covert Action

Legitimacy of Covert Intervention

The most controversial aspect of covert action is its ethical dimension. Some question whether the very act of covert intervention is ever ethically acceptable, while others focus their criticism on the particular methods used, and still others raise the particular conundrum of what it means for a democracy to engage in covert action (Beitz 1989). The first question of whether covert action can ever be acceptable is a subset of the broader question regarding the legitimacy of any kind of international intervention. And, just as is the case with the broader question, most scholars contend that there are certain circumstances under which it would be morally defensible for a state to intervene covertly. The least controversial cases involve a state using covert action in self-defense or for compelling humanitarian reasons (Beitz 1989; Colby 1989). Even there, though, there will often be room for argument about whether the intervention was truly justified. For example, President George W. Bush’s justification of many of his actions in the “war on terror” as self-defense, including the 2002 Predator Hellfire missile strike against Abu Ali al-Harithi in Yemen, is by no means universally accepted. And one need only look to the case of Darfur to see the contentious nature of justifying intervention (albeit overt in that case) in the name of alleviating human suffering. Beyond the comparatively “easy” test cases of covert intervention for self-defense and humanitarian reasons, some contend that covert intervention is justified in a range of other situations as well, from protecting friendly regimes that ask for help to propping up strategic allies.

Other scholars approach the argument more generally, contending that because the international environment can be a dangerous place, covert action in pursuit of the national interest is justified. The most clear-cut version of this was put forth in 1954 when the Doolittle Report commissioned by President Dwight Eisenhower justified the US’s need to resort to the “repugnant philosophy” of covert action by pointing to the “ruthless” methods employed by the “implacable enemy” of the Soviet Union (quoted in Ranelagh 1986:276–7). Two intelligence officials updated that sentiment in 1989, stating that “given the depravity of the world around us […] free societies have no choice but to engage in intelligence activities if they are to remain free” (Hulnick and Mattausch 1989).

The problem, of course, is that once one accepts that some covert operations are legitimate, people from different agencies, organizations, and governments will never all agree on what constitutes an acceptable national interest reason and what does not (Beitz 1989). Moreover, a very real risk of the fact that policy makers perceive covert action as a relatively cheap and easy “third option” is that they may well utilize, knowingly or not, a quite flexible interpretation of the national interest and resort to covert action too readily (Beitz 1989; Kibbe 2002).

Clearly, too, the degree of acceptability of covert action varies in conjunction with the level of perceived threat. As the Doolittle Report so vividly highlighted, during the Cold War the threat posed by the Soviets served to convince almost everybody that at least some covert action was justified. Consequently, when the Cold War drew to a close, some observers argued that it marked the end of the need to resort to “the bastard child of that long confrontation” (Hodding Carter iii, in Twentieth Century Fund 1992:22; see also Goodman 2000). In response, however, others contended that “the world remains a dangerous place” and that covert action “may be justified when a prospective threat creates a compelling national interest that cannot be met prudently by overt means alone” (Twentieth Century Fund 1992:5). During the 1990s, covert action was seen as still being useful to defend US interests from the new, post–Cold War threats of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and narcotics. With the crystallization of the terrorist threat after 9/11, the launching of the so-called war on terror seems to have swung the pendulum of opinion back to favoring a lower threshold for the use of covert action. The clearest indication of this has been the resurgence of observers calling for the lifting of the US ban on political assassination (Pape 2002; Richelson 2002).

Several scholars have tried to delineate criteria for when it would be acceptable to use covert action and, in those cases, what specific methods would be appropriate. One starting point is former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s formulation that covert action should only be used when “absolutely essential to the national security” of the United States and when “no other means” will do (cited in Treverton 1989:28). Former CIA Director William Colby calls for covert action to meet the criteria of self-defense and proportionality (Colby 1989). The most comprehensive criteria stem from Barry’s (1993) effort to apply Just War theory to covert action. He settles on seven standards that should be applied: just cause, just intention, proper authority, last resort, probability of success, proportionality, and discrimination and control (i.e., taking measures to safeguard the innocent and minimize damage).

In its comprehensive study of covert action undertaken at the beginning of the post–Cold War period, the Twentieth Century Fund takes a more policy oriented approach, recommending that covert action be seen as “exceptional” not “routine,” be driven by “a compelling national interest,” undertaken “only in support of publicly articulated policy,” and “only when overt means are unavailable, insufficient, or (even if sufficient) judged too costly in terms of human life” (Twentieth Century Fund 1992:8–9, emphasis in original). Similarly, Treverton (1989) and Colby (1989) advocate that covert action be used only when it has a good chance of succeeding and when it coincides with an administration’s publicly stated policy positions.

Methods and Ethics

A second category of arguments concerning the ethics of covert action focuses on the specific methods used. The most obvious target is assassination, which has been described as “a brutal, cowardly and inhuman act” that cannot be justified by “noble ends” (Johnson 1992:434). The United States, according to one author, “must not adopt the tactics of barbarians and terrorists” (Johnson 1992:434). Other scholars, however, have made the opposite argument, contending that sometimes assassination is, in fact, the ethical choice (Reisman and Baker 1992). Peters, for example, in referring to the Gulf War, notes that:

while it was acceptable to bomb those divisions of hapless conscripts, it is unthinkable to announce and carry out a threat to kill Saddam Hussein, even though he bore overwhelming guilt for the entire war and its atrocities. We justify this moral and practical muddle by stating that we do not sanction assassination in general, and certainly not the assassination of foreign heads of state. Yet where is the logic in this? Why is it acceptable to slaughter […] the commanded masses but not to mortally punish the guiltiest individual, the commander, a man stained with the blood of his own people as well as his neighbors?

(Peters 1996:104)

Aside from assassination, ethicists call into question a variety of the other methods that comprise covert action as well. Some point to the fact that many actions undertaken in covert operations are themselves illegal (separate from a properly approved operation being legal under US law) (Goodman 2000). As the House Intelligence Committee reported in 1996, “[a] safe estimate is that several hundred times every day (easily 100,000 times a year) DO [Directorate of Operations] officers engage in highly illegal activities (according to foreign law)” (House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence 1996:205). Others raise questions about the morality of the manipulation that lies at the heart of many covert methods. Because covert action is, by definition, deniable, the whole point is that one country is trying to effect change in another without the target population being aware that they are being acted upon, whether it be by means of propaganda, support of unions or political parties, the surreptitious triggering of strike actions, or some other method. But that inherently interferes with the target population’s ability to make its own decisions and, because it is done covertly, “leaves a person peculiarly defenseless against this invasion” (Beitz 1989:214).

Covert Action and Democracy

The third category of ethical issues raised by covert action are those regarding whether its use by a democratic state calls into question that state’s adherence to democratic norms. Here, the controversy revolves around two key questions. The first concerns the policy making process and whether the secrecy required in the adoption of a covert action policy is inherently at odds with the norms of open debate and accountability on which a democracy is predicated (Wise and Ross 1964). This is what Treverton refers to as “the paradox of secret operations in a democracy” (1987:222). Hodding Carter III, in dissenting from the Twentieth Century Fund study on covert action, put this argument in starkest relief, stating that “covert action is by definition outside the ambit of democracy” (Twentieth Century Fund 1992:21).

Others take a more intermediate position, conceding that there is an inherent conflict between democracy and covert action, but pointing out that democracies make many concessions to accommodate the realities of governing (Beitz 1989; Colby 1989). These authors emphasize that, since the mid-1970s, the United States has chosen to deal with the conflict between covert operations and its democratic values by relying on the oversight role played by the Congress to ensure that the executive branch does not overreach itself (Beitz 1989; Johnson 1989b).

The second question raised by a democracy conducting covert action goes back to the issue mentioned above regarding such operations violating the target population’s democratic rights to make their own decisions about their government. One response to this argument holds that if the goal of a covert operation is to protect a democratic state from a nondemocracy or to spread democratic values such as pluralism and individual rights to new arenas, then it cannot be said to be inimical to democracy (Shultz 1989).

Law, Oversight, and Policy Making

Congressional Oversight

The 1950s and early 1960s have long been portrayed as the veritable “golden age” of CIA covert operators, a time when Congress was largely content to approve broadbrush reports from the Agency about its covert operations and not ask too many questions (Damrosch 1989; Smist 1994). Barrett, D.M. (2005), however, comes to a somewhat different conclusion. In the first study to look carefully at Congressional involvement in covert action in the early years of the Cold War, he argues that Congress was both more active and more vigilant on the issue of covert action than it is usually given credit for. The result of Barrett’s more nuanced view of Congress’s role is somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, he maintains that, although legislative oversight was nowhere near as formal as it is now, Congressional “monitoring of the agency had become decidedly more extensive in the late 1950s, for example, than it was a decade earlier,” not least because of the much publicized intelligence “failures” that occurred roughly once a year, such as the failed uprising in Hungary and the surprises like Suez and Sputnik (Barrett, D.M. 2005:459). On the other hand, Barrett cites over two dozen cases where individual legislators urged the CIA to engage in covert operations, portraying a Congress that didn’t merely look the other way on covert action but, rather, actually “helped move the CIA toward aggressive covert action” (Barrett, D.M. 2005:460).

Congress first began trying to assert control over covert action in a concerted way in 1974, after allegations began to circulate in the press about the CIA’s role in overthrowing Salvador Allende in Chile and supporting rebels in Angola. The result was the Hughes-Ryan Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which prohibited the CIA from using appropriated funds for covert action unless the President found an operation to be important to national security and reported it to the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Appropriations committees in both the House and the Senate (22 U.S.C. § 2422). Further disclosures concerning the CIA’s domestic spying operations and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program caused each house of Congress to establish a special investigating committee to find out what else its members had been unaware of, known as the Church and Pike Committees in the Senate and House respectively.

The Church Committee, in particular, was invaluable to covert action researchers, providing as it did a public record of a number of previously unknown operations including, most notably, that in Chile and Operation Mongoose, but also actions against Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. The Church Committee’s interim and final reports remain an important source of information on those operations (United States Senate 1975a, 1975b, 1976). Also valuable, in terms of the question of congressional oversight, are the accounts of the investigation itself (Johnson 1985; Treverton 1987; Smist 1994).

The Church and Pike investigation committees eventually led to the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), standing committees charged with oversight responsibility. However, despite the new committees and the passage of the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act, which incorporated the covert action-finding requirement of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, the Iran-Contra scandal served as a rude awakening that important gaps remained in the new system of congressional oversight of covert action. In response, Congress adopted more stringent provisions in the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act, which is still the governing legislation on congressional oversight requirements. The Act codified two requirements for any covert action. First, there must be a written Presidential finding, which cannot be issued retroactively, stating that the action is important to US national security. Second, the administration must notify the intelligence committees of the action as soon as possible after the finding has been issued and before the initiation of the operation, unless “extraordinary circumstances” exist, in which case the president must fully inform the committees “in a timely fashion” (50 USC 413(b)(e)).

Not surprisingly, the literature regarding the oversight of covert action is considerably fuller for the post-1975 period, as various scholars have investigated how well Congress has fulfilled the oversight charge it gave itself in creating the two standing intelligence committees. In the wake of Iran-Contra, there was some debate over where the evident problem in the oversight system lay. Johnson (1989b) found that the oversight system had “struck an appropriate balance between control and discretion” and argued that the problem lay in the unwillingness of some members of the executive branch to abide by the rules set by Congress, while others argued that Congress needed to play a more active oversight role (Damrosch 1989). The next wave of analysis of congressional oversight was triggered by the events of 9/11 and the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq question, which served to highlight the ongoing and crucial need for better oversight. In this most recent phase of the oversight literature, which has become increasingly detailed and sophisticated, discussion of covert action oversight is usually subsumed in the studies of intelligence oversight in general (e.g., Johnson 2005; Snider 2005; McDonough et al. 2006).

The newest wrinkle in the covert action oversight question is the dilemma posed by the increased use of special operations forces post–9/11 for what is, in essence, covert action, although the Pentagon defines it as traditional military action (Kibbe 2004, 2007; Baker 2007). Here the focus of the problem is on the jurisdictional complexity involved in covert action oversight. While the intelligence committees are ostensibly the main oversight bodies, if it is an operation conducted by special operations forces, funding authorization and oversight in the Senate shift to the Armed Services Committee (in the House, they remain with the intelligence committee). Second, in both houses the Armed Services Committees have ultimate control over the intelligence authorization process in any case, since they must sign off on intelligence authorization bills before they go to the full House and Senate for votes. Finally, the appropriations for most intelligence activities are included as a classified section of the defense appropriations bill, meaning that the real control over the intelligence purse lies with the defense subcommittees of the two Appropriations Committees. While the 9/11 Commission, among others, recommended several ways of alleviating this longstanding obstacle to effective oversight, the entrenched bureaucratic power of various committees continues to doom much chance of reform, leaving the effectiveness of Congressional oversight of covert action questionable at best.

While the literature on legislative oversight is dominated by analyses of the US Congress, there has been an increasing amount of work done comparing legislative oversight structures across a variety of established and emerging democracies, and attempting to determine best practices for democratic accountability of intelligence operations (Born et al. 2005; Born and Caparini 2007).

Law and Policy Making

There are a number of useful analyses of the evolution of US law covering covert action, including Cinquegrana (1988), Johnson (1989b, 1996), and Reisman and Baker (1992). Gumina (1992) provides a detailed analysis of the covert action statutes in terms of the separation of powers (see also Eyth 2002). In addition, numerous scholars have focused on the legal issues raised by the covert aspects of the war against terrorism, including rendition (Neuman 2004; Weissbrodt and Bergquist 2006; Baker 2007).

Reisman and Baker (1992) provide what is still the best overall examination of the international legal issues involved in covert action, even though some legal experts are critical of their “contextual” argument that whether a particular covert operation is within the bounds of international law depends on the context in which it is taken, granting more leeway to major actors and beneficial purposes.

Another relatively recent development in the covert action literature has been the closer attention being paid to the process by which the executive branch arrives at covert action policies. Several scholars have carefully laid out the policy making procedures that various administrations have used to respond to the increased statutory requirements regarding covert action, including Johnson (1989b), Reisman and Baker (1992), and Daugherty (2004).


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  • Treverton, G.F. (2007) Covert Action: Forward to the Past? In L.K. Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence Volume 3: Covert Action. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, pp. 1–21.
  • Turner, M.A. (2007) Covert Action: An Appraisal of the Effects of Secret Propaganda. In L.K. Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence Volume 3: Covert Action. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, pp. 197–217.
  • Twentieth Century Fund (1992) The Need to Know: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Covert Action and American Democracy. New York: Twentieth Century Fund Press.
  • U.S. Department of State (2003) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954: Guatemala. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • United States Senate (1975a) Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders: An Interim Report to the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  • United States Senate (1975b) Staff Study: Covert Operations in Chile, 1963–1973. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  • United States Senate (1976) Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (Books I, IV, and VI). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  • Van Wagenen, J.S. (1997) A Review of Congressional Oversight. Studies in Intelligence. At https:/, accessed February 2008.
  • Warner, M. (2000) The Office of Strategic Services – America’s First Intelligence Agency. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Weissbrodt, D., and Bergquist, A. (2006) Extraordinary Rendition: A Human Rights Analysis. Harvard Human Rights Journal 19, 123–60.
  • Wilford, H. (2008) The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wise D., and Ross, T.B. (1964) The Invisible Government. New York: Random House.
  • Wyden, P. (1979) Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Links to Digital Materials

Chile Documentation Project, National Security Archive. At, accessed June 4, 2009. The National Security Archive is an independent nongovernmental research institute that collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Chile Project provides access to thousands of documents related to the Nixon administration and the 1973 coup in Chile.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, Guatemala. At, accessed June 4, 2009. Digital copy of the US Department of State’s official archival record (published in 2003) of US relations with Guatemala during the period leading up to the CIA coup in 1954.

Literature of Intelligence. At, accessed June 4, 2009. Online bibliography of intelligence materials maintained for the past decade by J. Ransom Clark of Muskingum College. Listed address links directly to the covert action chapter. Many entries include excerpts and/or links to reviews of the works listed.

Secrecy News. At, accessed June 4, 2009. Blog by the FAS Project on Government Secrecy (Federation of American Scientists). Secrecy News provides links to newly released or declassified papers and reports about a variety of security and intelligence topics, including covert action. Often includes helpful editorial commentary.

US Covert Actions and Counter-insurgency Programs. At,%20Africa%201964–68/, accessed June 4, 2009. An explanatory note from the FRUS editors (part of the 1964–1968, Africa volume) describing, on the basis of previously declassified documents, the changing procedures for planning and approving covert actions during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Presidencies.