Covert Operations

Covert operations are often more expensive than traditional armed interventions. They also have a higher risk of failure or unintended consequences.


Before intelligence oversight reforms in the l 970s, Congress paid little attention to what the executive branch did under its standing authority to conduct covert action. Today, Congress has powerful cards it can play to discourage a president’s ill-considered plans.


Covert action takes place in situations where openly operating against a target would be disadvantageous, such as insurgency or a proxy war. It is a specialized tool that is often employed as part of a more comprehensive policy to influence the behavior of an adversary or deter enemy threats. The riskier a covert operation is, the more it must be carefully planned in secret. Proposals for such operations typically come from a wide variety of sources, such as station chiefs, deputy directors for plans, the director’s staff, and the DCI. The president himself may become involved in a proposal when it is judged to be of high or moderate risk, such as the Bay of Pigs operation (Document 1).

When a covert operation goes wrong, such as with the Tehran or Guatemala coups, its consequences can be far reaching and can have significant political fallout for interveners. Moreover, botched covert action can tarnish the reputation of an entire institution.

The resolution of incidents is important not only because it identifies perpetrators and detects system failures, but also because it sends a signal to future malefactors that such actions will be dealt with promptly and severely. As a matter of policy, the U.S. government should maintain a symbiosis between clandestine collection and covert action, recognizing that HUMINT is an essential support for some covert operations.


Many covert operations involve surveillance, either to collect intelligence or to monitor activities of fugitives and other criminals. While a significant portion of intelligence agency and Department of Defense activity falls under this category, the term is sometimes used loosely to include surveillance activities not specifically covert or clandestine. This conflation of terms blurs the critical distinction between “covert” and “clandestine,” and perpetuates misunderstanding of what constitutes CA.

While many who advocate covert action recognize that such actions cannot be reconciled with democratic principles, they argue that they are nevertheless necessary in certain circumstances to ensure national security. They also believe that, because of their nature and their reliance on secrecy, covert operations should be managed by independent organs of government rather than by the executive branch alone.

For example, the CIA has long operated under the doctrine of plausible deniability. This requires that, if a covert operation fails, its sponsor be able to assert that it had not been his or her idea. This is why the CIA operates an interagency committee to oversee and manage its covert activities. Although the name of the group has changed over time, its responsibilities have remained the same. The Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974 stipulates that, unless the President chooses to become personally involved in an operation, it must be approved by this committee and reported to Congress by way of a written finding.

Resolution of Incidents

Covert operations are government-sponsored activities that seek to influence foreign political, economic, or military conditions without exposing the United States’ hand and, in case of discovery, allowing the U.S. to plausibly deny responsibility. They can be unilateral or in support of a particular country, state, or nonstate entity, and can take the form of direct action or sophisticated propaganda.

The need for plausible deniability puts a premium on the approval and monitoring of these activities by organs beyond the CIA itself. In the United States, this became a function of a permanent interagency committee that changed names over the years but always included members of Congress as well as the president’s cabinet and secretaries of other departments. Presidents have always weighed the benefits of such clandestine activity against the need to keep such activity secret.

Covert operations can be highly controversial, especially if they involve terrorism or support for violent resistance movements abroad. Their success or failure can exact domestic and international costs that may threaten the policy they are pursuing. Even “soft power” tools such as front organizations, however, can have the same domestic and international effects as more traditional paramilitary or terrorist actions. A front organization could, for example, be used to promote a political movement or assassinate opponents of that policy. But the most important consideration is that a covert policy must be a sound one.

Human Intelligence

HUMINT – human intelligence collection – is a necessary element of covert action. This collection discipline goes into the rooms satellites cannot reach and talks to the people SIGINT cannot wiretap. This enables covert operations to address real security threats that can’t be dealt with by technical means alone, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorist activities, and drug trafficking.

A common criticism is that separating covert action from clandestine collection harms both functions, because analysis can’t effectively support the planning of an operation without access to its end and intermediate products. An example would be the Bay of Pigs, where a more effective mission might have been had there been consultation between analysts and the operators in the planning stage.

In a post-Cold War world where rogue states, international terrorists and narcotics smugglers are new and unpredictable adversaries, it’s important that the nation retains covert action capabilities to protect the United States. A thorough examination of how to organize these efforts in a way that serves rather than subverts the aims of democratic government is needed.

A key to this process is the relationship between the president and Congress, which needs to be more transparent. Although the Hughes-Ryan Act stipulates that the president must report, in a written document called a finding, any covert action campaign to Congress, this does not give congressional committees any formal veto power. Instead, legislators have a number of tools at their disposal to discourage the executive branch, including threatening next year’s appropriations and bringing issues to the floor of both houses for debate.