MYTH #9: Covert action can be implemented in a surgical manner.
Another fantasy about covert action is that it can be used with high precision, as a surgeon would a scalpel. Yet covert propaganda (for instance) can lead
to the problem of "blow back" -- the risk that stories planted overseas by the CIA may drift back to the United States in this age of media globalization.
Nor is there anything surgical about current drone policy, which elides such fundamental questions as where drones may legitimately operate, the criteria
for selecting individuals on the hit list, or how proper accountability will be maintained from target selection through the pulling of the trigger (by
distant remote control) on the Hellfire missiles.
MYTH #10: The likely outcomes of covert action can be accurately calibrated.
Covert action planners are largely guessing what the outcomes of their handiwork will be, especially years down the road. Installing the Shah of Iran in
1953 looked like a good idea for some at the time. Glancing back, former CIA Director William E. Colby offered this evaluation: "The assistance to the Shah
. . . was an extremely good move which gave Iran twenty-five years of progress before he was overthrown. Twenty-five years is no small thing." Yet the
identification of the United States with the Shah, whose secret police (Savak) tortured and murdered dissenters, has had a long-term negative effect,
beginning with the Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah and installed an anti-American, fundamentalist regime. As for the long-term implications of
using drones to assassinate foreigners, one doesn't have to have a crystal ball to envision retaliation in kind -- with elected officials in open societies
MYTH #11: Covert action is kept within the boundaries of moral acceptability
The assassination plots of the Cold War against Fidel Castro of Cuba and others made the CIA look like its chief nemesis, the Soviet KGB. When the Agency
established a "Health Alteration Committee" to concoct ways for eliminating disagreeable leaders abroad, when its scientists crafted a poison dart gun (a
"non-discernable micro-bio-innoculator," in spytalk) and special ballpoint pens that dispensed deadly shellfish toxins, when its operatives entered into an
alliance with Mafia hit men, the United States lost sight of its traditional values of honor and fair play. More recently, America's drone program has
precipitated widespread ethical concern. News reports from Pakistan indicate that even pro-Americans in this nation question the violation of their
airspace, not to mention the accidental killing of civilians that has occurred during these attacks.
MYTH #12: If the veils of secrecy could be lifted, the public would find that covert action works.
The vast majority of covert actions since the creation of the CIA have been modest in nature, even trivial; or, when more ambitious, as at the Bay of Pigs,
they have often failed. Moreover, as illustrated by the case of the Iranian Shah, the unanticipated consequences of covert action can come back to haunt
the United States. The covert action record is not without its successes. The CIA's participation in the routing of Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan
made good sense in the aftermath of 9/11. Also, drone strikes and other small-scale paramilitary operations against Al Qaeda have demonstrated some
success, and this approach may be more acceptable to Americans than large-scale military invasions. Drone covert actions cry out, though, for prior
judicial review of proposed targeting against American citizens, as well as closer monitoring of kill lists by overseers in the executive and legislative
branches. Necessary, as well, is a redoubling of efforts to avoid civilian casualties through improved intelligence reconnaissance before an attack; and
the establishment of limits to global drone operations by way of a formal international treaty.
* * *
Among the hundreds of witnesses who appeared before the Church Committee in 1975, two of the wisest were Clark Clifford and Cyrus Vance. They had
accumulated many years of experience in the government at the cabinet level. When asked their opinions about covert action, both embraced a common theme.
"The guiding criterion," said Clifford, former secretary of defense and an author of the National Security Act of 1947, "should be the test as to whether
or not a certain covert project truly affects our national security." Vance, who would soon become secretary of state in the Carter
administration, told the Committee that "it should be the policy of the United States to engage in covert actions only when they are absolutely essential to the national security."