The Pitfalls of Covert Action
Coups, assassinations, clandestine radio stations, economic warfare, insurgency, and counterinsurgency are all the stuff of covert action. This is what people imagine when they think about covert action (CA in the vernacular). I have memories of watching Woody Allen's movie Bananas, a parody of the Cuban Revolution, as a child. The setting is a darkened aircraft with two rows of CIA operatives sitting across from each other. One operative turns to another and says, "We are backing the government, who are you backing?" The other operative replies, "We are backing the rebels. The CIA is not taking any chances this time." As with most things, however, CA is much more complex than the movies make it out to be and not the Mission: Impossible type of operation we imagine. There have been real successes and there have been serious failures. When done right CA can be an effective policy tool. What follows is a discussion of the pitfalls for the US when conducting CA. It is based on my 28 years with the CIA and involvement in five major and several smaller CA programs, as an operations officer supporting a small piece of a large CA program all the way to developing, executing, and managing a large CA program. I have observed CA in action from the perspective of a grunt in the field, as a manager of a part of CA in the field, from various CIA Headquarters positions, all the way to the policymaker level at the White House, Congress, State Department, and Defense Department. These are my observations.
First, for those unfamiliar with the purpose of CA in US policy, let's get some basics down. Covert action is codified in Title 50, U.S. Code 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 States will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Broadly speaking the main categories of covert action include propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action, as well as economic action, which involves destabilizing the target state’s economy in some way. Remember that part of the definition states the role of the US will not be apparent. It becomes important. As a side note, there is an important difference between covert and clandestine in the intelligence world. Clandestine means that the operation or action remains hidden, and no one is aware of it. In a covert operation, the sponsor of that operation remains concealed, though the operation itself can be visible.
Why was CA created? The National Security Act of 1947 created the CIA, along with merging the military services under the new Department of Defense and creating the National Security Council. The CIA was tasked with a variety of intelligence-related responsibilities, principally the collection and analysis of information. However, the act contained a small paragraph that tasked the CIA "to perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct." That purposefully ambiguous "other duties" opened the way for CA.
At the time the National Security Act of 1947 was signed the US was locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union over power, influence, and the direction of the world. It was believed that the Soviet Union was more ruthless and capable than the US in the world of covert warfare. For decades, the USSR had worked what they called Active Measures, our CA. They suborned, bribed, assassinated, destabilized, and waged all sorts of underhanded political warfare to expand their influence and control. The US needed to be able to meet the threat on an equal footing, hence CA.
CA was also seen as a middle ground between diplomacy and direct military intervention, a space where the US could take action more forceful than a State Department demarche (a diplomatic protest or demand) but less direct than a US military attack.
CA started out supporting Western political parties that favored democracy as a counterbalance to the various communist parties funded and directed by Moscow. As the Cold War intensified CA became a much more aggressive instrument of US policy, overthrowing governments the US deemed moving too close to Moscow. The success in removing undesirable governments led to the first pitfall I want to discuss, policymakers.
Most policymakers, not all, have a limited understanding of CA. Like many Americans, their view of CA is colored by Hollywood and spy thrillers. Those policymakers that have spent time devising and executing policy do have some concept of what CA can and cannot do. Many see CA as a silver bullet, a quick solution to a national security problem that leaves no muss or fuss. In their eyes, it eliminates the need for a wider policy debate since CA is conducted in secret. There is little need to "sell" the policy to a wider audience, such as the American people, again, because CA is conducted in secrecy.
That in itself is a weakness. Without the debate over a policy, input is limited and runs the risk of groupthink, which reduces various views and opinions, stifles ideas and creativity, and can lead to poorly thought-out ideas. Without the need to "sell" the policy to a wider audience, an administration runs the risk of alienating the people and losing their support for the policy. The wider audience would not have the opportunity to comprehend the government's actions, further alienating them from the policy and the government.
Policymakers also normally do not understand the requirements for conducting a CA program. Using the example of regime change, as was done in the 1950s, there must be existing opposition in the country of interest. The CIA cannot manufacture an opposition out of whole cloth. The latter will end in failure. For a CA program to be successful there must be an indigenous opposition to the government that can form the core of a larger, US-sponsored, and directed operation. Even if the effort centers around propaganda, which is an effort to influence a foreign government's decision-making or actions, there needs to be a receptive audience willing to accept the message and act on it.
CA must also be complementary to the overall US policy. By this I mean you cannot have an overt US government policy that says one thing and a covert program whose goals are opposite of the stated policy. As an example, way back when, the US was intent on regime change in a particular country and tasked the CIA with developing a CA program to achieve that goal. However, the overt US foreign policy was to contain that particular regime. Regional allies, who would be critical to executing regime change, were confused. They did not know who to believe: the official, openly stated policy as laid out by the State Department or the CIA's secretly expressed goals. These regional allies decided to listen to whatever policy benefited them at the time, making it difficult for achieving any US policy objectives.
The CA program must complement US policy, not operate in opposition, and CA cannot take the place of an actual policy.
Policymakers should also understand that the bigger the CA program the less likely it will remain covert. Remember the idea of covert I noted above? The CIA is well-versed in clandestine operations, keeping its activities from prying eyes. That is the result of well-developed tradecraft skills that allow CIA operations to normally go unnoticed, though not always. Part of this clandestinity is due to keeping the number of people aware of particular operations down to the bare necessity. The fewer the people in the know the less chance of information leaking out, and if it does, the smaller the number of individuals who could have leaked it.
When a program becomes big, let's take the Central America CA program, which is publicly well documented, the number of people who are knowledgeable about the program becomes unmanageable. In Central America, in the 1980s the CIA ran insurgencies and counterinsurgencies at the same time. With an insurgent army of 40,000 men, and easily another 40,000 fighting counterinsurgency, keeping US involvement secret was impossible. Even the US government only discussed its support for the various groups. The "covert" of Covert Action was a failure. However, the fact that citizens of the particular nation are doing the fighting or compose the political opposition and uniformed US military personnel are not involved provides a slim degree of cover. The target nation is not faced with a direct US military invasion so its response can be more nuanced and does not require a direct military response against the US, as has been evident in many US CA programs. That is something.
One of the reasons the CIA was established was to be an objective, impartial intelligence organization that did not have a policy interest. The Defense Department (DOD), which controls 80-90 percent of the US intelligence capabilities, has significant policy interests. The DOD has huge weapons procurement programs and any intelligence that minimizes the threat that justifies these weapons is looked upon negatively by the Pentagon structure. Intelligence reporting that contradicts military claims of success can be silenced. We saw examples of that in Vietnam and Afghanistan. The State Department is loath to report that important foreign policy initiatives are not succeeding. Many policy organizations do not like to provide information to senior leadership that would cost them money, resources, influence, and less of a voice in the formulation of policy.
The creation of the CIA was intended to avoid all of this since the CIA has no policy interests. It is there to tell the truth as they see it based on the intelligence collected and analyzed. CA changes that. We don't like to admit it but once a CA program is up and running the CIA is involved in the formulation of policy. We don't want to admit that our CA program is not achieving its objectives, because we have become committed to the foreign partners we are working with to achieve whatever the goals are, and we have lost a degree of objectivity.
A good CA program will recruit sources among the foreign members of the program to report on possible financial irregularities so as to make sure taxpayers' money is being used for its intended purpose. Sources will report whether program members are conducting activities and operations in accordance with program goals, etc. But it becomes hard to look critically at these same people who share the risks and dangers that you do, oftentimes even more. It is difficult to look critically at programs that you have staked your reputation on. Many CIA officers can do this, but many can't.
In a CA program, there exists the possibility that the CIA will lose a degree of objectivity in the conduct of the program and, not intentionally, look at program activities more positively than they should. In any of these larger CA programs, an outside committee should be established to review metrics, to assess whether the CA program is having the desired effect.
Afghan Mujahideen 1980s
Finally, one of the obvious pitfalls, which occurs with regularity but few really pay attention to it when initiating a CA program, is the unintended consequences. In the policy discussion leading up to the initiation of a CA program, the objectives are discussed in detail, authorities and resource requirements are laid out, then it is off to the races. Everyone involved focuses on accomplishing program goals and rarely is what happens after victory is discussed. The first Afghan CA program of the 1980s is a prime example. The goal of bleeding the Russians white was set and everyone went on to accomplish that goal. Total success. Then we left without a thought as to what would come next. Of course, some people in government looked on and I am sure tried to help the US government navigate its Afghanistan policy, but in general, everyone turned away to the next problem. This led to the rise of the Taliban, al-Qaida, and Pakistan's involvement. We paid the price for not considering the consequences of our victory and not having a plan for the day after the Russians left.
Chile is a slightly different example. The CIA did highlight that a successful coup in Chile against the Allende government would usher in a brutal dictatorship, but it was ignored. And that is exactly what happened. It ushered years of torture, and murder and diminished the US' reputation throughout the world.
Santiago, Chile 1973
Policymakers, and the public at large, need to understand that any covert action effort will result in consequences. All possible consequences should be reviewed and discussed prior to committing the US to a certain course.
These are some of the major and more obvious pitfalls of covert action. Even with these drawbacks, CA remains a useful and viable policy tool under some circumstances, especially the more subtle types of CA. It remains important for those involved to understand the downsides as well as the positives before engaging.