Covert Operations

Covert operations are often necessary to accomplish policy objectives. Unfortunately, bad decisions involving covert action quickly sully the reputation of the entire endeavor and may lead to a decline in its effectiveness.


This book examines the elusive factors that define covert operation success and failure. While a focus on the Cold War provides context, many of these principles have relevance in today’s mutable world.


Covert operations involve taking secret measures aimed at influencing political, economic or military conditions abroad. These may include propaganda campaigns, funding and training paramilitary groups or even assassinations. In peacetime covert actions are tools of foreign policy, in wartime they are part of strategy. They are a way to pursue foreign policy without openly deploying force and risking domestic backlash.

Since the Church Committee hearings and Iran-Contra scandals covert action has come under intense scrutiny in the United States. As a result the government has sought to put greater emphasis on openness. This shift has had mixed results. Some covert actions have been outright fiascoes. Others, such as those involving Nicaragua, have fueled anti-Americanism.

A key issue in the use of covert actions is avoiding escalatory spirals. In peacetime a leader’s need for a policy outcome often outweighs the risk of provoking rivals into retaliation. However, in a conflict against a hostile enemy it is not uncommon for the fear of escalation to outweigh any concerns over retaliation by domestic critics.

To reduce the risk of a covert operation becoming public it is important for there to be a system for its approval and oversight. Until recently, the CIA was required to submit proposals for covert action to an interagency committee. This committee included the deputy director for plans (DDP), area divisions and the State or Defense Departments.


Covert operations are a policy instrument, and their effectiveness depends on how they are applied. A policymaker may choose to employ them to achieve certain objectives when direct military action is either inappropriate or unlikely. The most important consideration is to ensure that the end states are consistent with overt policies and goals of the nation.

The tradecraft of covert operations includes a wide range of tactics. Non-violent covert operations can undermine a target state’s ability to control the world around it, or surreptitiously steer its decision-making by placing agents in key positions. Violent covert operations can include sabotage, assassination, and paramilitary support of armed insurgency. Regardless of their form, they must be designed to provide the originating power with a degree of plausible deniability.

This requires coordination between analysis and operations. If the two are separated, the effectiveness of an operation can be compromised. For example, the Bay of Pigs could have been avoided if analysts had warned that the Cuban population would not rise up against Castro.

In an era of tightening budgets, a robust covert operations regime is vital to American national security. While there are risks and limitations, it should not be dismissed as an unproven method of foreign policymaking. Instead, its history and utility should inform the discussion about how America’s political leaders use its resources to achieve its foreign policy goals.

Human Considerations

Among the many challenges in Covert operations, one is that they require a high level of trust. Moreover, there are often times when HUMINT agents are placed in harm’s way in the pursuit of their work. Whether due to terrorist attacks or the loss of life, the consequences of failure in Covert operations can be extremely costly.

Even a successful covert operation can lead to unwanted consequences in the domestic political sphere. For example, the Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba failed to overthrow Fidel Castro but instead brought the country closer to the Soviet Union and helped precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As such, the complexities involved in covert operations necessitate that a policymaker have full awareness of the human cost of an action. In addition, a lack of proper vetting of covert action by congressional committees puts the operation at risk of becoming a blank check for an administration.

In order to mitigate these risks, it is important for Congress to understand the unique nuances of covert action and its overlapping roles in clandestine collection and counterintelligence. Furthermore, it is critical that a CIA director understands the importance of having an adequate global presence for human intelligence. In the current era where nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, and terrorism are high priorities for intelligence agencies, technical collection will often be insufficient to inform covert actions.


The costs of covert action can be high. Whether the result of the Tehran or Guatemala coups, or more modest operations like arming a rebel force in Pakistan, these operations cost lives and resources. During the Cold War, the covert actions supporting anticommunist insurgents in Europe were an important part of the overall American policy of political and military defense against Soviet expansion. But they also sunk significant amounts of American money and lives, and sullied the reputation of the intelligence community.

A major reason for this sullying is that covert operations are often seen as a smokescreen for political decisions. In fact, most of the drives for reform in the aftermath of Operation CHAOS and Iran-Contra were sparked by objections to covert action.

While it is easy to point to the high costs of covert action, it is equally easy to overlook the low cost of the overt options for achieving the same ends. Supporting a foreign rebellion or disarming terrorists in the jungle requires fewer people and resources than sending in a full-scale invasion of a country.

Furthermore, even if it were possible to separate covert action from clandestine collection, such a move would harm the morale of analysts and hamper their effectiveness. Keeping the two groups together allows them to consult on planning, and gives analysts access to important end or intermediate products of analysis. Without this information, the planners of an operation might not know, for example, that the Cuban people were not likely to rise up against Castro.