The Myths of America's Shadow War

Taking covert action is far less clean -- and much more complex -- than many assume.

RTR30LEG-615.jpgMohammad Ismail/Reuters

The United States faces a world of constantly shifting circumstances, as underscored by the Arab Spring uprisings. To shield the nation in a global setting where uncertainty and hostilities are commonplace, officials in Washington have crafted a range of responses to international events that includes diplomacy and the use of armed force. The most hidden and least understood of these responses is covert action -- a tightly held operational secret in the U.S. government. This secrecy has yielded several myths that have misled the American people about a controversial, and sometimes lethal, approach to foreign policy.

MYTH #1: The meaning of covert action is clearly delineated.

With the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991, the government did craft a formal statutory definition of covert action as "an activity or activities of the United States government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United State Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." Put simply, covert action attempts to influence world events through the secret use of propaganda, political, economic, and paramilitary activities. The concept of "secret influence" is spongy, though, and can blur the distinction between activities carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or by the military. Take the training of foreign covert forces by U.S. Special Operations Forces. The SOF consists of soldiers out of uniform, acting on an unacknowledged basis -- precisely the kind of operation engaged in by the CIA. By calling such activities "traditional military operations," the Pentagon is able to sidestep the legal procedures for reporting covert actions to Congress.

MYTH #2: Covert action offers a quiet approach to America's foreign relations .

An appealing aspect of covert action is the promise that it may allow the United States to address vexing problems overseas in a quiet manner. Indeed, one of the euphemisms for covert action is "the quiet option." Yet consider such CIA operations as the failed attempt in 1961 to overthrow the Castro regime with an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs; or the use of mines to blow up shipping in Nicaraguan harbors during the Reagan administration. Nothing quiet about these "secret" activities. Today drones can fly silently, but there is nothing quiet about the explosions of Hellfire missiles as they strike targets on the ground.

Covert actions require partnerships; they are rarely a quick and easy solution.

MYTH #3: Covert action presents an attractive alternative to reliance on diplomats or Marines.
In between diplomatic negotiations and sending in the Marines lies the "Third Option" -- another euphemism for covert action. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once put it: "We need an intelligence community that, in certain complicated situations, can defend the American national interest in the gray areas where military operations are not suitable and diplomacy cannot operate." Framing foreign policy options in this tripartite manner, however, sets up a false set of options that too often carries the United States toward the use of covert action, while slighting other foreign policy approaches that might merit greater consideration -- such as the use of trade inducements or development assistance.

MYTH #4: Covert actions undergo rigorous government review before they are implemented.

The Church Committee, led by Senator Frank Church (D, Idaho), discovered in 1975 that only about 14 percent of all covert actions from 1961 to 1975 had been authorized by the National Security Council. The Committee concluded that "these ambiguous arrangements were intentional, designed to protect the president and to blur accountability" -- the infamous doctrine of plausible deniability, whereby unelected bureaucrats decided when and where covert actions would occur, all in the name of keeping the president's hands clean. Today the review of covert action proposals is far more thorough. Nonetheless, full accountability is often lacking and one of the chief culprits is use of "generic findings." The word "finding" refers to the president's formal approval of a covert action. The expectation in Congress is that a finding will be reported to lawmakers with a reasonably fulsome statement about the operation, so that the oversight committees can evaluate its appropriateness. With generic findings, however, specificity is abandoned, say, by providing authority "to fight global terrorism." For CIA operatives, this broad language could be interpreted to mean almost anything.

MYTH #5: The covert action approval process is cumbersome and ineffective.

Some intelligence officials long for the days before the establishment of a findings process, as required by the Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974. Better the simple telephone call from the CIA Director to the national security adviser than the hurdles posed by presidential review and congressional notification. The end result of this "micromanagement," according to this nostalgic perspective, is to slow down the CIA as it tries to thwart dangers to the United States. "What we need is horsepower, not brakes!" said an exasperated senior CIA officer to me soon after the Church Committee recommended tighter supervision of covert actions. In fact, though, today's approval procedures can move with alacrity when necessary, thanks to a link-up of secure telephones that allows quick communication among the president, intelligence managers, and other key players responsible for green-lighting an operation.

MYTH #6: Covert action has the virtue of allowing the United States to act alone in foreign affairs.

Covert action seems to offer an opportunity for unilateral action: the United States moving with secrecy and dispatch. In reality, though, rarely can the CIA operate alone in carrying out covert actions of any consequence, particularly paramilitary endeavors. Indeed, a fundamental tenet of covert action success is having a competent ally within the target nation. One of the most successful covert actions was the routing of the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A sine qua non for the victory was the internal assistance of the Northern Alliance, a tribe of Afghans who also opposed the Taliban. Covert actions require partnerships; they are rarely a quick and easy solution.

Presented by

Dr. Loch K. Johnson is Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. He is editor of the journal Intelligence and National Security and has written numerous books on American foreign policy.

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