Covert Operations

Covert operations are used in situations where openly operating against a target would be disadvantageous. They include sabotage, assassinations, and support for subversion.


The current system of oversight prevents abuses revealed by Iran-Contra, but a few more steps could be taken without jeopardizing effectiveness. One step is to require timely notification of Congress.


Covert operations are a part of the overall policy of foreign influence, and they are often employed when open military action is considered unadvisable. They can take many forms, including sabotage, assassinations and support for coup d’etats. Some involve the use of a false flag or front group.

Because of the nature of these activities, it is essential for a nation to have adequate resources for human intelligence in order to perform covert operations. Such human intelligence provides the information necessary to initiate the operation and enables it to be carried out in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

Covert operations are also distinguished from clandestine operations by the fact that the identity of their sponsor is concealed or allows plausible denial. However, the distinction between the two can become muddled because, in practice, a significant portion of the activity of front organizations involved in covert action is similar to, or overlaps with, that of other front organizations, such as terrorist and organized crime groups. This is particularly true of covert sabotage operations.


The main purpose of covert action is to deal with issues that cannot be handled openly. This could include nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, and global organized crime. Most Americans would not have moral objections to the use of covert operations in this context.

While the Cold War provided a consistent adversary that defined the nation’s intelligence community, it’s important to remember that today the international environment is constantly changing. A major goal of reform should be to create a structure that allows for flexibility without increasing the chance for abuse.

One solution to this problem is to separate clandestine collection from analysis. However, this creates two bureaucracies where there were previously only one and complicates communication, coordination, and support (including security, training, and financing) between the two.

Regardless of the organizational framework, it is essential to identify the specific purpose of any operation. This is the only way to keep the process focused. A clear definition also helps to prevent the accidental disclosure of sensitive information. For example, a CIA case officer might know that a suspect is a double agent, but the officer is likely to be less willing to share this information with the military than to his own people within the CIA.


Covert operations are often used in conjunction with other tools of national power, such as diplomacy and overt military action. A well-known example was the support given to the Polish trade union Solidarity, which developed into a large mass movement, providing a potent counter-ideology to atheist Soviet Communism. Another was the use of religion to foment unrest among a foreign population, a policy pursued by William Casey during his tenure as Director of Central Intelligence.

The problem with separating covert action from intelligence analysis is that the latter cannot be effective without access to the end and intermediate products of the former. This is illustrated by the failure of a number of covert attempts to overthrow foreign governments, such as the Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba, which failed to remove Castro from power and brought that country closer to the Soviet Union.

In this era of globalization and a world whose stability has never been more tenuous, the role of covert action in the nation’s foreign policy needs to be thoroughly examined. This requires a close look at the ways in which the CIA is organized, overseen and supported by Congress and the people.


Covert operations use a variety of techniques to avoid detection. They include infiltrating terrorist or global crime networks to gather intelligence. They may involve psychological manipulation to influence perceptions or physical force to accomplish objectives. They can occur on a large scale, such as supporting a mass movement to oppose communism like Solidarity in Poland, or they may be limited in scope, such as gathering topographical data in a remote part of the world.

They may also rely on technical intelligence gathering, but this cannot replace the importance of a global human presence in many cases. Without this, a successful covert action is largely impossible.

Over time, covert operations can become entwined with political policy. For example, the US support of anti-communist guerrilla movements in Latin America during the Cold War was often a response to the inability of conventional forces to project power into the region without incurring heavy casualties. In these instances, covert actions serve as a supplement to military and diplomatic policies rather than an alternative. Nonetheless, there are risks that come with such entanglement.


Covert operations involve significant risks for the U.S., from destroying morale within the intelligence community to damaging the reputation of the nation abroad. They are often expensive and can be prone to mistakes such as the Bay of Pigs or Iran-Contra fiascoes.

One disadvantage is that a focus on secrecy can lead to ineffective operations, which are then punished by budget cuts. This can hurt the morale of those involved in covert operations and sully the reputation of the entire intelligence community.

The symbiosis between clandestine collection and covert action is an important part of the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence gathering. Removing covert actions from the rest of intelligence would jeopardize both.

Another disadvantage is that the CIA cannot conduct covert operations without the permission of Congress and the President. The current oversight system is not foolproof, but it does help to limit abuses. The CIA is already struggling to meet the demands of this system, and it could be further hampered by separating covert action from the rest of intelligence gathering.