The Myths of America's Shadow War

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


Mohammad 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.

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.

MYTH #7: Covert action offers an inexpensive fix to foreign policy dilemmas .

Large-scale political, economic, and paramilitary operations can run into millions of dollars -- even billions, as in Iraq and Afghanistan recently. When the CIA was founded in 1947, covert action was the tail on the CIA dog -- not even mentioned in the founding National Security Act of that year. Since then, the tail has often wagged the dog. The cash register for covert action keeps ringing -- never louder than with current paramilitary operations in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and North Africa.

MYTH #8: Covert action is resorted to only in extreme circumstances that threaten the United States.

The expense of covert action would be more tolerable if this approach were limited to operations that protect the United States from parlous circumstances, but the record shows that Washington officials have resorted to this approach far below that standard. Frequently the targets have been, as Senator Church put it during his committee's inquiry into covert action, "small, weak countries." Again, today, small nations serve as the battlefields for covert action, often leaving the impression around the world that the United States is just another hegemon, throwing its weight around -- often secretly -- in poor nations unable to defend themselves.

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 highly vulnerable.

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.

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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."

In 1995, former CIA Director William Webster (who had also led the FBI) told the Aspin-Brown Commission on Intelligence his rule of thumb for deciding on the worthiness of a covert action proposal. He would ask:

  • Is it legal? (That is, in conformity with U.S. laws governing covert action, such as the Hughes-Ryan findings procedure.)
  • Is it consistent with American foreign policy, and, if not, why not?
  • Is it consistent with American values?
  • If it becomes public, will it make sense to the American people?

The Webster guidelines, coupled with the caveats of Clifford and Vance, should be framed and placed on the office wall of every covert action planner, as well as in the White House and the suites of the congressional intelligence committees.