Covert Operations

Covert operations are secret activities sponsored by the government that have a state or nonstate target. They are planned so that if they are discovered the sponsor can plausibly deny involvement.


Under the Eisenhower-Dulles administration the CIA made covert operations a major part of its work. These included psychological warfare and paramilitary actions that overthrew unfriendly governments in Iran and Guatemala, resulting in military dictatorships.


Covert operations may be a way to get around legal restrictions on military and police action. They are also an important part of a country’s strategic planning.

The CIA’s first major covert paramilitary operation, a political action to prevent electoral victory by the Italian communist party in 1947-1948, set a pattern. CIA political action programs included funding newspapers and journals, such as the Rome Daily American and Congress for Cultural Freedom; support for anticommunist dissident groups in other countries; and radio broadcasting to Europe (the “black” station Radio Free Europe and the “gray” station Radio Liberty).

Fomentation of rebellions by agents of another power has been a common tactic in warfare throughout history. The recruitment and employment of mercenaries is another form of covert paramilitary activity.

In early Kennedy administration times, the agency had a clear policy focus on Latin America, particularly Cuba, and proposed projects were vetted by an executive committee that was known as the Special Group. This group, like the presidential finding committees that preceded it, was a sort of shadowy National Security Council subcommittee—in fact, its working sessions were sometimes held over Tuesday lunches at the White House. Proposals originated from a wide range of sources—ambassadors, station chiefs, the director of intelligence (DCI), the deputy director for plans (DDP), and DDP area divisions were all involved.


Covert operations are generally undertaken in situations where open action would be disadvantageous. They may be non-violent, such as creating disaffection in a target state’s population and weakening its will to affect the world around it, or violent, including sabotage and supporting armed insurgency against the opposing power. Peacetime covert operations are meant to provide ‘plausible deniability,’ which means that, in the event of a disaster, the head of the originating government is able to deny involvement.

During the Cold War, for example, the CIA was keen to build’stay-behind’ networks of resistance in countries that were likely to be invaded by Soviet forces during a future conflict. The network would support guerrilla activities, supply arms, and otherwise function as an alternative to an armed attack.

The CIA also sought to foment democracy and democratic values through its political covert actions. For example, it provided support for the Polish trade union Solidarity, which developed into a mass movement based on Catholicism and eventually became an effective counter-ideology to atheist communism worldwide.

A key issue in the debate over covert operations is whether they ever advance responsible policy. As a result, it is important to look for reforms that can increase national security without increasing the chances of abuse. However, the delicate balancing act between oversight and efficiency makes such changes hard to legislate.


A covert operation is a type of intelligence activity that takes place in situations where open action would be disadvantageous. Its techniques include sabotage, assassinations and support for coups d’etat. They also include psychological warfare and economic warfare. In World War II, belligerents discovered that the distinct elements of covert operations could be combined into comprehensive efforts with multiple facets.

Unlike technical collection, covert operations require considerable resources to succeed. If they are poorly planned or executed, they can sully the reputation of the agency that sponsors them and the president who approves their activities. It is an axiom of covert-action officers that bad policy decisions in the beginning result in ineffective covert operations and vice versa.

Although the CIA’s chief of staff can approve covert actions, they seldom originate at headquarters. Rather, proposals for such operations can come from ambassadors, station chiefs, the director of central intelligence (DCI), the deputy director for plans (DDP) or the agency’s area divisions. In addition, the president’s national security adviser or a member of his staff might suggest covert action.

A centralized group of senior interagency officials acts as the high command of the secret war, and records in this EBB show them going into detail about the broad scope of their agency’s covert activities. In addition to the CIA, this group includes representatives of the State and Defense Departments as well as the CIA’s directorate for foreign aid.


Covert operations can be detrimental to national security by violating international law or causing unintended consequences such as civilian casualties. They can also erode the public’s trust in the government and lead to distrust between countries. These negative consequences demonstrate the need for transparency and accountability in covert action programs.

While intelligence agencies need to balance secrecy with the needs of their citizens, they must be able to communicate openly about their activities and explain why some actions are necessary. This will help to establish legitimacy and trust in these programs.

Another disadvantage of covert operations is that they often require a significant amount of risk and may have long-term negative effects. One example is the military coup in Guatemala that replaced a democratic tradition and left over 60,000 people dead and the country ravaged by civil war for years afterward. Despite the successes of such operations, their long-term effect can be more detrimental than the short-term gains.

The current system of oversight for covert action is inadequate. Though Congress must be informed of covert operations before they begin and the president must notify congressional committees of them within 48 hours, legislators don’t have a formal veto power. This allows the executive branch to ignore the advice of a board that meets in closed sessions and weighs the nation’s interests over those of public opinion.