Covert Operations and Intelligence Collection

Covert operations require access to end and intermediate products of analysis. Separating them from intelligence collection hampers both.


Over time the CIA’s embarrassing experiences with Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon’s efforts to overthrow Salvador Allende created a desire for reform. Ideally, any changes would improve oversight without increasing the risk of abuse.


Covert operations are based on the principle that their sponsors must not be revealed. They must be hidden or disguised in some way, whether by disguising the activity in plain sight or by styling it as something else. This may seem a trivial distinction, but it is crucial for the success of such operations. The reason is that they rely on the ability to conceal their real purpose from others—and, for example, their own governments—to minimize political fallout if they should fail.

Depending on the circumstances, covert activities may be either non-violent or violent. Non-violent covert operations include economic manipulation and other forms of subversion, whereas violent covert operations include support for paramilitary groups and armed insurgents against a hostile government. Regardless of the method, the goal is to influence a foreign government without provoking a direct military response from that country.

The United States has strict requirements for its clandestine agencies, as embodied in the National Security Act of 1974. These require that any covert actions by intelligence operatives be justified in advance by a written presidential finding and be timely notified to congressional intelligence committees. These requirements reflect concerns that covert action may violate the Constitution’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures and that it might result in the misappropriation of private property. However, even when these requirements are met, the results of covert action often have undesirable long-term effects.


In an era of nuclear proliferation, global organized crime and information warfare, the ability to manipulate the politics and economy of other countries is more important than ever. Many states that cannot, or will not, commit openly hostile forces to a fight can be undermined and bypassed entirely through covert means. A state that does not wish to turn over a terrorist suspect is unlikely to be convinced by empty threats of force, but will likely surrender to the threat of being subverted by a smarter political message or more aid assistance.

Covert operations must be able to work in situations where open action would jeopardize their success, but they also have to deliver results that are useful and worthwhile. If an operation is not capable of achieving a desired outcome, there is no point in carrying it out. In a military sense, covert activities tend to focus on achieving influence rather than overthrowing regimes. Non-military covert operations tend to rely upon ‘agents of influence’ or, in Lenin’s terms, ‘useful idiots’ to steer government policy or public opinion.

In the future, with the enemy being more decentralized and fluid than it was during the Cold War, there may be more call for small-scale, paramilitary-type operations. These could be carried out by the CIA, but the military is better equipped to handle such operations. In either case, oversight should be strengthened without jeopardizing the effectiveness of covert operations.


Covert operations use concealed means and intent to achieve policy goals in foreign countries. Non-violent covert action may involve propaganda to discredit a target state or steering surreptitiously its decision-making processes by placing agents in key positions. Violent covert actions can include sabotage or paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the target country’s government. In peacetime, the goal is usually to avoid public exposure, and to reduce political fallout when a covert operation fails.

For this reason, a key requirement for a covert action is “plausible deniability”: if the covert operation fails, its originating government should be able to deny that it approved of the action or even knew about it. The requirement for plausible deniability means that a covert operation is necessarily more risky than overt action. It also means that covert action is often more expensive than overt action because it requires greater vetting and planning.

The documents in CIA Set III illuminate the ways in which covert operations are conceived and carried out. The series includes a wide range of proposals for covert action, from the earliest moments of the Bay of Pigs to actions in British Guiana, Colombia, Indonesia, and elsewhere. These proposals came from various sources, including CIA officers at headquarters and in the field, ambassadors, station chiefs, the DCI and the deputy director for plans, and the DDP area divisions.


The question of whether or not covert action is worthwhile often hinges on its results. For non-violent covert operations, the success or failure is usually measured in terms of its ability to ‘influence’ the government or public opinion of a country, whether through taskable agents able to carry out specific missions or through what Lenin purportedly called ‘useful idiots’ duped into propagandising for the attacking power. In the case of military and paramilitary covert action, a more complicated calculus is involved. For example, the success of the Stuxnet virus in disrupting Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities is hard to judge.

Even a limited analysis of the effectiveness of covert action shows that it is very difficult to achieve results without close coordination between intelligence analysts and those carrying out covert action. One of the most common suggestions for reform of this problem is to separate covert action from clandestine collection, but such a separation would cripple the intelligence community, and could easily backfire in the form of sullying the reputation of intelligence agencies as a whole if they were accused of operating ‘false flag’ operations.

Despite their extreme potential for costly abuse if left uncontrolled, covert operations are vital to the success of the United States in today’s complex and mutable world. An extensive examination of their role and appropriate level of regulation is therefore necessary.