Democracies and Covert Operations

Covert operations are a necessary and dangerous tool that manipulate international events without Americans or their targets knowing who did it. But what does this mean for democracy?


The American system is built upon the idea that policy measures enacted by elected officials are reviewed by the checks and balances of the different branches of government and the people themselves.

The Role of Covert Action

The debate over covert action must include an examination of both its moral and practical concerns. Its moral problems can be solved with a thorough philosophical evaluation of democracy, but its practical concerns will require an inspection of the tools that are available to the state to accomplish policy goals.

One such tool is covert action, which can be used to achieve political goals in states that are unlikely to accept direct military action or where the potential costs of such an operation would outweigh the gains. Covert action can be non-violent, such as creating disaffection among a target government’s population or steering surreptitiously its decision making through agents placed in key positions, or violent, such as assassination or paramilitary support of a guerrilla insurgency against the opposing regime. Non-violent covert operations typically use ‘agents of influence’, persons able to influence either the government or public opinion in the target country. Violent covert operations rely on sabotage and assassination. The choice of a technique depends on the opportunity and scope for success, as well as a consideration of ‘plausible deniability’ for the intervening power.

However, it is important to note that the planning and execution of covert actions are crippled without access to the end products of analysis, as many of these activities involve the recruitment of local actors with their own agendas. As the Bay of Pigs demonstrated, this can often sabotage the mission.

The Need for Oversight

The very nature of covert action, however, poses challenges for oversight. The secrecy of such operations may protect interveners from some criticism, but it also means that operations do not get the full vetting that they might have had if the information were made public. This is a significant problem, since it makes it difficult to ensure that the operatives are not working at cross purposes or running into unforeseen dangers. The need to plan in secret also reduces the number of people who can be consulted before and after an operation, making it less likely that the proper precautions will be taken against potential pitfalls.

The current system of oversight, based on the Hughes-Ryan amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, requires that any covert action be justified by a presidential finding (or memo of notification, as it is now called). This process allows the President up to 48 hours after the fact to notify Congress of an approved operation.

It may seem obvious that this arrangement should be improved, but the solution is not easy to come by. Any attempt to reform the system must address the practical concerns that arise from its use, including the question of whether it serves or subverts the aims of democratic government. A clever administration can still find ways around this system by careful legal manipulation, but that only sullies the reputation of the intelligence community and harms national security in the long run.

The Need for Efficiency

In the case of covert action, efficiency is the key to success. It is important that the policy maker has confidence that the covert tool being employed will actually fulfill its intended objective, and that it will be able to do so without exposing any of its agents to unnecessary risk.

In this regard, the National Security Archive suggests that policymakers consider the value of a high level interagency group to act as the command structure for covert actions. This senior group can be envisioned as a sort of CIA high command that acts as a counterbalance to the lone ranger nature of the agency itself.

It is also important to note that successful covert operations depend heavily on human intelligence (HUMINT) in order to identify and recruit target entities for influence or subversion. This type of activity can often be very time consuming and resource intensive, which is why it must be a priority for the policy maker to have sufficient resources committed to this area.

A good example of this is the CIA support for Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement against atheist communism in the 1980s. This large scale covert operation required the CIA to invest funds in printing presses and to provide financial and technical assistance for religious, cultural, and other resistance groups opposed to the Soviet occupation of that country.

The Need for Human Considerations

Covert operations can often have severe repercussions that cannot always be foreseen, such as the case of Hezbollah’s successful bombing campaign in Lebanon or Orde Wingate’s failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. The same can be said for nonviolent covert operations, such as support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan or propaganda programs like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasting to Soviet Muslims.

These events can often create anti-American sentiments that linger well beyond the point of any particular covert operation. They can also undermine the reputation of American intelligence agencies. For example, if Peace Corps volunteers or American clergymen in foreign countries are suspected of being secret agents of the CIA, their credibility may be severely damaged.

The danger of blowback is often cited as evidence that covert activities are not a legitimate instrument of policy. However, the idea is flawed. Whether open or covert, diplomacy is a tool of policy; overt military engagement is a tool of war.

Whether covert or not, meddling in foreign countries will always exact costs, both domestically and internationally. The key question for a policymaker is not how the meddling will be conducted, but whether it can achieve its objective, and whether the policies that justify its use are sound and can be maintained in practice. That requires both open and covert instruments, including armed intervention in the event of a genuine threat to state stability.