Covert Operations: Control and Oversight

Covert operations involve activities that a government can legally deny. Nevertheless, they often require an emphasis on secrecy to be effective.


Nevertheless, elected officials must balance the demands of the people with the realities of the system they govern. This is especially true in situations that rely heavily on covert action.


The success or failure of covert action depends on its alignment with policy, and the nature of that policy. If the policy is sound and domestically supportable, covert operations are not likely to exact costs that exceed their benefits. If, on the other hand, the policy is flawed or unpopular, then even a successful covert operation will be at best insufficient to meet its objectives and at worst will be counterproductive.

In this sense, the policy of covert actions is as important as their tradecraft. Using a covert operation to manipulate events is a dangerous undertaking, and the resulting costs can be high in terms of both money and lives. It is therefore vital that the policy supporting covert activities be well considered.

Moreover, covert activities are often employed in situations where it is difficult or impossible to achieve a foreign policy objective with direct military intervention. For example, a covert operation may be needed to undermine the capacity of an enemy state to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, promote democratic ideals, or control international crime syndicates.

It is important to recognize that the policy of covert operations is a fundamentally political one, and as such must be weighed against the national security interests of the United States. The American system of government is built upon the idea that elected officials are accountable to the people and must balance the competing demands of the various arms of the executive branch. Unfortunately, this system is often at odds with the requirements of covert action campaigns.


This set focuses on two important aspects of covert operations: control and oversight. It contains a collection of primary source material that showcases the tension between the CIA and Congress on these issues. This material includes everything from Director of Central Intelligence nomination hearings to extensive Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings on specific covert activities, such as the Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra.

The issue of oversight is particularly crucial because it often shackles covert action and hinders its effectiveness. The problem is that, if it is not properly regulated, covert action has the potential for extreme abuse. Yet the current system of regulation has only removed some of this risk because it is difficult to prevent the President from operating a covert operation without notifying Congress, as required by law.

However, legislators have many ways to discourage a President from pursuing an unnecessary covert action program. They have the power to withhold funding for the next year and, in particular, can expose embarrassing details of a program to public scrutiny. In addition, the committees on which the directors of intelligence and covert operations sit have a number of powers that can be exercised to discourage unwise executive action. This is a crucial issue because it can prevent an administration from viewing covert action as some magic bullet to force their foreign policy goals without the need for strong presidential leadership or well defined policies.


The need to plan covert actions in secret requires a higher degree of flexibility than would otherwise be possible. It also means that operations receive less vetting and have a greater chance of failure. In addition, the president must inform Congress of covert action within 48 hours of its initiation, and while intelligence committees do not have a formal veto, they can use their power of the purse to discourage unwise policies by withholding the next year’s budget.

Covert operations are usually conducted in conjunction with a variety of other instruments of national power. For example, economic measures and diplomacy are used to influence foreign conditions while covert propaganda and paramilitary activities support political parties, private groups, and individuals in their efforts to overthrow or undermine a government. In addition, the use of force must be subtle and indigenous in origin because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Despite the controversy surrounding them, covert operations are an effective instrument of national power. They are especially valuable in addressing non-state actors, including terrorists, drug smugglers, and criminal networks that operate beyond the reach of conventional military power.

One proposal to improve the efficiency of covert operations is to separate the activities of analysis from clandestine collection. However, this will create two bureaucracies where there was one, and will harm the morale of analysts if their relationships with collectors are compromised. Furthermore, the vast majority of modern threats that could be addressed through covert action, such as nuclear proliferation and global crime, require a much more comprehensive approach than technical systems are capable of providing.


Covert operations are often used to counter threats that cannot be fully addressed by conventional means, such as nuclear proliferation and global organized crime. The effective use of these methods can save lives, money and political capital. However, their effectiveness depends on the availability of intelligence and the quality of the people directing them. A robust global presence of human intelligence agents is essential to infiltrating terrorist and criminal networks.

The success of covert action also hinges on the degree to which it is accompanied by a policy. While some Members of Congress have sought to require congressional notification prior to a covert operation, presidents have generally resisted this demand. However, covert actions are susceptible to congressional oversight through the power of the purse.

In addition to their military and security uses, covert actions can also help decide major political issues. The Tehran and Guatemala coups, for example, decisively decided the political composition of their respective governments. More modest covert operations, such as the American-Pakistani effort to generate proxy war in Afghanistan, can have similar results.

While a covert operation can help to achieve policy objectives, the risk of escalatory tensions remains. This is especially true when the operation does not involve directly confronting a state’s own forces. For instance, the American-Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents was a limited objective that did not threaten direct Soviet military response.