Covert Operations

Covert operations are essential to advancing controversial components of foreign policy. Unfortunately, many have failed to achieve their goals and have had negative repercussions in the long run.

Reform is needed to improve the current system of oversight without 사람찾기흥신소 sacrificing efficiency or national security. The first step must be to identify the pitfalls that are the most likely to be exploited.


Covert operations, also known as clandestine activities or secret wars, involve military and political actions carried out in a way that conceals the identity of those responsible. They are distinct from overt operations, which are openly acknowledged and visible. Both are contrasted with the term stealth, which is used to describe tactics that reduce enemy detection and resistance.

In practice, covert operations are typically limited in scale and scope, to ensure that they do not trigger a direct retaliation from the target state. They provide policymakers an option to achieve objectives, when direct action is not desirable. Operational success can be rewarded by gains in the diplomatic and economic realms, or by providing sufficient ambiguity to constrain a target state from climbing up a higher “rung” of escalation dominance.

In the United States, covert operations must be authorized by a presidential finding and be disclosed to Congress. Unlike overt operations, covert activities can be undertaken by a variety of agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This set contains essential documents pertaining to the control and management of these covert efforts.


Covert operations are a way to change events without direct military intervention. They involve a range of tactics, from psychological warfare to paramilitary action. They must be concealed from the public and their originators must have ‘plausible deniability’ in case they fail.

Non-violent covert operations are often designed to create disaffection in a target state’s population or steer its decision-making via placing agents in key positions. Violent covert operations can include sabotage and assassination. The first incarnations of modern political actions took place during World War II, when belligerents developed sophisticated propaganda and manipulation techniques. The German ‘Fallen Leaf’ campaign in Norway, Hungary and Romania and the British campaign in India, Burma and French Indochina brought the practice to new heights.

Under the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration the CIA would become heavily involved in covert activities, most of which were targeted against putative communist foes and almost all of which were in Third World countries. These included psychological warfare projects in Eastern Europe and Latin America, paramilitary operations in Iran, Laos and Tibet, and economic warfare projects in Cuba.


Covert operations seek to influence political, economic, and military conditions abroad without exposing the intervening power’s role. This goal is often pursued through direct action, such as assassinations and sabotage, or through propaganda and other forms of political manipulation. Covert actions can also involve supporting a coup d’etat or subverting opposition movements.

As such, covert operations require a high level of tradecraft in order to remain secret. While the CIA’s Directorate of Operations has long focused on this issue, achieving plausible deniability remains a challenge in practice. Ultimately, the shape and content of covert operations is dictated by policy.

While there is no doubt that current systems of oversight are effective at eliminating many opportunities for abuse, some additional steps could be taken without jeopardizing effectiveness. One possibility is to mandate congressional notification prior to the initiation of covert operations. Since the president’s authority to fund such activities stems from the appropriations process, requiring advance congressional notification would provide an important safeguard against the kinds of miscalculations that led to Iran-Contra.


Covert operations are designed to manipulate international events without either the intervening nation or the target state knowing who is responsible. In theory this makes them a legitimate tool of foreign policy, but in practice they are rarely successful. Most of the time they fail to achieve their intended result – for example, the United States attempted to overthrow many foreign governments in its efforts during the Cold War but less than 40 percent succeeded. Even the successes often had negative long term repercussions.

One of the reasons for this is that covert operations are difficult to do well. They require a delicate balance of oversight and efficiency. Oversight should be based on national security needs and the potential for abuse, and efficiency requires that any short term gains are worth the long term costs. This is why reforms that increase the effectiveness of covert operations without increasing their danger should be first on any list of necessary reforms.


Covert operations allow policymakers to achieve objectives when direct military operations (or even the threat of those operations) is undesirable. They also offer ambiguity enough to constrain a target state from climbing up the escalation ladder toward a direct armed attack.

Many covert operations fail to achieve their aims, and those that do often have negative ramifications. For example, the Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba brought Fidel Castro closer to the Soviet Union and precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The documents included in this collection highlight the varied successes and failures of covert operations throughout the Cold War period. They range from well-known activities like the US support of the Polish trade union, Solidarity, through the 1980s to lesser known propaganda efforts such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasting to Soviet Muslims.

In assessing the proper scope and magnitude of covert operations, it is important to consider the effect unauthorized public disclosure could have. At the same time, any reorganization of covert action capabilities and oversight must be carefully balanced against a need to avoid stifling beneficial foreign policy opportunities.