Covert Operations and the Art of Statecraft

Covert operations have a long and distinguished history. They provide policymakers with a strategic option when direct military intervention is undesirable or would lead to an escalatory spiral.


Over the years the CIA has undertaken many covert actions to support foreign dissidents. Most of these have failed; those that succeeded often had negative repercussions in the longer term.


Covert operations require a high level of secrecy and often specialized equipment. They also carry a significant risk that sensitive information or the identity of agents may be revealed by accident or malice. The risks can be minimized if policy makers are able to clearly define the scope and purpose of each operation before it begins.

The current system of oversight is designed to minimize the potential for abuse of power by requiring the President to report, through a written document known as a finding, each covert action campaign that has received foreign financial assistance in advance of its initiation. In addition, Congress can stop any covert action by a simple majority vote in both houses.

Even so, the system is not foolproof. A determined administration can find ways around this system by using clever legal manipulation. And if that happens, it will weaken the intelligence community and national security in the long run.

Another problem with the current system is that it separates analysis from operations, which limits the effectiveness of the intelligence gathering process. If analysts had been involved in the planning of covert action campaigns in the past, for example, they might have warned the planners of the pitfalls of the Bay of Pigs or provided valuable topographical information that could have prevented the disaster that occurred.


The secrecy surrounding covert operations is a crucial point. It is not just that the public should be kept in the dark, but the morale of intelligence officers and the international reputation of the United States are both harmed by the vitriol generated by these fiascos like the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, if the separateness of covert action and clandestine collection is not addressed, there are likely to be further such fiascos in the future.

In addition, the secrecy that surrounds covert action makes it harder for analysts to approach the activities of CIA officers with objectivity and scrutiny. For example, the CIA is often required to protect its sources and methods of gathering information. This is very difficult to do if the media is given access to these activities. The results can be devastating for the CIA in terms of ruining people’s careers and revealing its secrets.

The CIA Set III documents illustrate the complex issues surrounding the control and management of covert operations. The set contains a wide variety of CIA internal and external sources, including the minutes of the “Special Group” that approved covert operations and the notes of meetings between the President and Director of Intelligence (the latter often held over Tuesday lunches). It also includes congressional hearings on CIA-related issues such as the National Security Act, the CIA Reorganization and Reform Act, and the Hughes-Ryan amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act.

Instruments of National Power

Covert operations often use one or more of the nation’s instruments of national power – diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. These are all essential to the art of statecraft, and Congress requires that the President lay out how they will be used in a National Security Strategy.

Non-violent covert operations typically depend upon ‘agents of influence’ to manipulate either the government or public opinion in the target country. This can be done through ‘taskable agents’ of the attacking power’s intelligence agencies or, more cheaply and with more ‘plausible deniability’, through what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ who are duped into propagandising for the attacker. Violent covert action can include sabotage, assassination and paramilitary support for armed insurgency against the target country.

While some of these operations are successful, others are not. In addition to the dangers of escalation that Poznanky points out, the need for such operations to be kept secret may reduce their effectiveness. Leaders may be under pressure from their own domestic populations to continue an operation if it is not showing immediate results, especially if the resources expended are large or lives lost.

As the debate over the role of covert action in a globalising world moves forward, it is important to look back at how such operations have performed historically. This includes assessing whether the costs and benefits have been balanced and, if not, what can be done to improve their efficiency and legitimacy.

Compatibility with Democracy

The ambiguity of covert operations makes it difficult to reconcile them with the requirements of democracy. The secrecy inherent in these activities carries the potential to inflict political fallout that might be impossible to avoid if the government was open about its decision-making and actions. The need for ‘plausible deniability’, that is, the ability to defend the action even if it goes wrong, is essential for covert operations, and this puts a premium on their approval and management by organs of the government beyond the CIA.

This explains why covert operations have often been supervised by an interagency committee (Joint Publication JP1-02), rather than a single person, ensuring that the CIA can avoid the consequences of any failures. Moreover, the operation’s success requires a certain amount of luck, which can be difficult to achieve in an environment where information is leaked or compromised.

Unlike war, covert operations are not subject to the checks and balances of normal democratic politics, which can make them less accountable. This may be one reason that the political leadership of a state prefers to keep its decision-making on these issues secret. It is not difficult to see a parallel with the Federal Reserve Board, which meets several times a year in closed sessions to decide interest rates, and is insulated from criticism by members of Congress.