Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 3  /  

When Should Covert Action Be Used in Fulfillment of Foreign Policy Strategy?

When Should Covert Action Be Used in Fulfillment of Foreign Policy Strategy? When Should Covert Action Be Used in Fulfillment of Foreign Policy Strategy?
To cite this article: Smith, Troy E. “When Should Covert Action Be Used in Fulfillment of Foreign Policy Strategy?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue 3, Summer 2013, pages 28-30.

The history of covert action extends far back, even before the Cold War Era, where it was used not only by the United States of America and the former Soviet Union, but also by many other countries. It is generally accepted, that covert action has formed a part of United States foreign policy strategy since 1947/48, when it was used by policymakers in efforts to stymie the expansion of the Soviet Union’s power.[i] The extensive history of covert action has provided a substantial framework that can be accessed to ascertain when covert action should be used. Unfortunately, covert action proves quite resistant to analysis, since much of the content of many operations remains classified.[ii] Additionally, covert operations, according to the publication of National Security Council (NSC) 10/2 in June 1948, can comprise “propaganda, economic warfare, preventative direct action, including sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures, subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground movements, guerrillas and support of indigenous anti-communist elements”.[iii] This broad definition exemplifies how covert action can vary considerably in size, scale and application. The size, scale and application vary to suit the foreign policy strategy it supports. This undoubtedly gives rise to the dynamic nature of covert action, as what is considered national interest within the context of the international system is constantly changing. National interest can be divided into four core goals; power, peace, prosperity and principles. Each time covert action is used, each of these four goals must be considered and preferably all accomplished. In order to fulfil foreign policy strategy, the expected outcome, and the method of covert action used, must align with the core goals that define the national interest. The efficient and effective implementation of any strategy is essential for its success. Policymakers must think and act strategically when implementing strategy, they must assess when and in what form to use the tools that form parts of their strategy. In this article attention is paid to the when: when should covert action be used as part of foreign policy strategy? Several factors can be considered when deciding if covert action should be taken, each with its own merit. Overall assessment of covert operations comprise of a cost to benefit ratio, where cost can be human, financial, social or political. Is the possible result or attainment of a foreign policy objective worth the risk of losing lives, use of substantial resources or loss of trust by other governments and/or the public if the covert operation is discovered?

One of the primary considerations must be the loss of lives, whether it is operatives or foreign resources, as this can undermine even a considerably successful operation and result in international media attention and political catastrophe. This is an essential consideration, as any foreign policy strategy includes maintaining a positive international image of the United States and encouraging peaceful relations. Loss of lives undoubtedly can affect the ability of the United States to have peaceful relations, as it can affect trust and invoke deep seated feelings of hate. A prime example of the eradicable stain left by a covert operation is one which resulted in thousands of deaths: the 1958 attempt to overthrow Sukarno, the leader of Indonesia. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), trained large numbers of Indonesian dissidents and mercenaries and returned them to Sumatra, where they recruited other rebels. This subsequently resulted in the Indonesian generals beginning a campaign to eliminate all communist sympathizers throughout Indonesia. Estimates of the numbers killed ranged from a low of 30,000 to a high of 1 million.[iv] Although the undertaking was much larger in scope than the later Bay of Pigs invasion, it was so far away that it attracted little attention.[v]

Secondly, can covert action facilitate a more favourable environment for overt action and make overt action and other intelligence gathering efforts more financially feasible? In these cases, it is more about choosing the right type of covert action. Technical systems can be employed based on the objective of the operation; however, this is quite expensive and should be reserved for major targets. Alternatively, covert operatives can be deployed to a wide variety of targets inexpensively, allowing them to recruit sources and report the need for technical intelligence when it is appropriate. Conversely, the question can be asked if covert action now will result in saving money on operations in the future. A global presence of undercover agents may provide crucial information, such as when to empty the bank account of a crime boss or whom to pressure to get to a terrorist group, at a low cost, relative to technical intelligence.[vi]

A third factor to consider is the need for resources. While covert action offers expediency and flexibility, as officials need not explain their plan to the public or allies, the accessible resources are decreased. In order to keep things secret, operation security would dictate that knowledge of the plan is highly restricted, and activities that could create identifiers and result in the loss of critical information are limited. Hence, it must be determined if the operation can be achieved without external resources, such as ally intelligence or military force. The inclusion of covert action, as part of intelligence, also poses operational risks where intelligence agencies conduct covert operations without proper coordination with other agencies, leading to the compromising of operations, agents and resources. While compartmentalization and restriction of information is necessary for covert operations, it can lead to parallel operations and mission important information not being obtained. If other parties do not know what is taking place, they may treat mission critical information with a lower priority level, as their understanding at the time may be that it is unimportant.

Another consideration is will the use of covert operations achieve any goal(s) that an overt operation would not be capable of achieving? For example, if voters in Italy knew that the CIA funded the Christian Democratic Party in 1948, the Communists would have labelled the Christian Democrats as U.S. puppets and the CIA support would have failed. Also, in some cases covertness can help persuade countries or groups to support your efforts, as they desire a similar conclusion, but want to have plausible deniability as they do not desire direct confrontation with another government. For example, when the United States supported the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s, if this had not been done covertly, the Soviet leadership could have attacked U.S. allies, who assisted in the process. Consideration must be given as to whether covert action will lead to the government, or its allies, avoiding retaliation for an act that would have otherwise definitely led to conflict. The possible deterioration of an already fragile situation, due to overt action, must also be considered. In the late 1940s, for example, the Soviet Government knew that the CIA was supporting resistance fighters in the Ukraine, since Soviet intelligence penetrated most of the resistance groups. If U.S. leaders had admitted responsibility, Soviet leaders would have felt it necessary to retaliate, as was the case when President Eisenhower owned up to U-2 over-flights in 1960, with the result that Khrushchev felt compelled to cancel the Paris summit conference.[vii] In tantamount, covert action can be used to support a larger war effort by hampering efforts of enemy regimes whilst bolstering the abilities of allies.

As highlighted previously, one of the most fundamental questions is, can deniability be maintained and is it necessary for the operation? Berkowitz commented that the covert operation launched by the United States to eliminate Saddam Hussein in the 90’s was doomed from the start, as the Kurdish leader, forming part of the operation, could not be fully controlled and he freely released information to the press. In the case of the operations against Saddam, deniability was probably unnecessary as he already knew the United States intended to get rid of him; even if that meant assassination. Also, he had already prepared himself for conflict with the United States and would assume any action against him to be initiated by the United States, hence, making deniability unnecessary.

During the Cold War, agencies engaging in covert activity had no significant concern of covert action coming into the light, but now it is expected that it will eventually be exposed. As such, covert action must respect basic human rights and morality. It should be planned with consideration of international conventions and the stated policy for relation with combatants as stated by the foreign policy of the agency’s government. In the aim of avoiding international and even domestic consequences, as human rights have become a much greater concern since the times of the Cold War, covert action must be undertaken under strict ethical and moral guidelines for it to stand the test of time.

The assessment of all the above factors before utilising covert action is essential but is not the only thing necessary for the long-term success of covert operations. Simply knowing what must be done is often not enough; there must be written guidelines in the form of standard operating procedure for oversight purposes. Ideally what must be achieved is a situation where the necessary accountability and control can be achieved without being intrusive, myopic and/or dragging the intelligence community into partisan politics. Oversight is currently covered in the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991, which requires the congressional committee in both the House and Senate to be kept fully informed of the intelligence activities of the United States. According to the aforementioned Act, the President must submit his ‘findings’ to the intelligence committees within forty-eight (48) hours of launching any covert operation. Also, as the Congress has some degree of power in the form of budget control, some improvements can still be made as even this can be bypassed as the Congress has no veto powers and the president can operate from a discretionary fund until the next year’s appropriations.[viii] To prevent a similar phenomenon to the Iran-Contra affair, the President should be required to notify the Congress before foreign financial assistance is acquired for covert action. To prevent mishaps where an administration starts an operation and then does not receive Congressional support, which can lead to failure and possibly compromising positions, reports should be generated from the executive, indicating changes in relationships and foreign policy, so that operations can be tailored to parallel these policies. Also, even before the mandated 48 hours the ‘Gang of Eight’ should be notified as this should not be too time consuming and will allow some action to be taken if necessary.

While covert action may come with certain risks, these can be mitigated by thorough planning and agreement between the Congress and the administration. Covert action may change over time, but the need will never cease, so long as threats to the freedom and security of a country’s citizens and economy exist. Covert action forms an inescapable part of foreign strategy, as it allows the core goals that define the national interest to be achieved when direct intervention may be counterproductive. However, its use must be controlled by oversight which must exhibit a balance of control, accountability, foresight, alignment with foreign policy, efficiency and effectiveness. To achieve a truly effective level of oversight a committee must be flexible and be staffed with persons both willing to serve, and qualified to do so. These people must understand the limits of covert action, co-operation, tradecraft, international politics and the consequences of failure, both nationally and internationally. Therefore, committees should be comprised of a combination of select members of congress, planners, military officers and intelligence personnel with years of experience so that each operation can be examined holistically.


[i] Isenberg, David. The Pitfalls of U.S. Covert Operations. April 7, 1989. (accessed November 14, 2011).
[ii] Potter, Zachary. Covert Action: the Delicate Balance. December 13, 1996. (accessed November 16, 2011).
[iii] Covert Operations, Cold War and beyond - Military History .., (accessed April 2, 2013)
[iv] Isenberg, David. The Pitfalls of U.S. Covert Operations. April 7, 1989. (accessed November 14, 2011).
[v] Ibid
[vi] Potter, Zachary. Covert Action: the Delicate Balance. December 13, 1996. (accessed November 16, 2011).
[vii] Bekowitz, Bruce D, and Allan E Goodman. “The Logic of Covert Action.” The National Interest, 1998.
[viii] Potter, Zachary. Covert Action: the Delicate Balance. December 13, 1996. (accessed November 16, 2011).