Covert Operations - Problems of covert operations

It is significant that capabilities which the United States created to wage an ideological war against Russian communism have found their primary use against small nations in the Third World. In the aftermath of the Cold War, when American democratic ideals were extolled, the fact that covert operations posed an implicit political, paramilitary, and psychological warfare challenge to national self-determination in the Third World detracted from the luster of the United States. Suspicion of U.S. motives will also follow from public knowledge of the existence and practice of covert operations techniques.

It is problematic that more than fifty years after the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency no fundamental law existed that defined in detail the authority and responsibilities of U.S. intelligence. It remained questionable whether the legal authority to conduct covert operations exists in U.S. law. Part of the recurring struggle over the approval and authorization for covert operations arose precisely because the charter for the mission remained ambiguous. If the public adopted a different understanding of "intelligence matters" or rejected an expansive definition of "national security," the limited legal framework provided by the National Security Act of 1947 would disappear instantly.

Covert operations also takes the CIA, and U.S. intelligence more broadly, out of its ideal role of informing statecraft. In a covert operation the CIA is an action agency, with practical policy interests and a need to advocate them. This puts the agency into the ranks of the rest of the government, arguing options and furnishing a rationale to slant the intelligence analysis, the objectivity of which is crucial to policymakers.

From the standpoint of control and management, there is little evidence that the CIA and other agencies, including military agencies, are out-of-control, "rogue elephants" in the idiom of the 1970s. The danger is more one of overzealousness in the implementation of presidential directives, as demonstrated in the Iran-Contra affair. A process of continual review is necessary to supervise covert operations.

From the standpoint of diplomacy, covert operations are a complicating factor. The degree of covert activism contributes to a global image of the United States, and established images would be difficult to change even if the United States were to cease the practice of covert operations. Moreover, actions taken in the past can influence present events, even the far distant past and the modernist present as in the case of Iran. Covert operations also have unanticipated consequences both foreign and domestic, especially where overzealous operators exceed instructions.

Unfortunately, presidents almost always have a full plate of vital issues of the day. They rarely have the opportunity for the detailed examination and management of covert operations, as Kennedy learned painfully from the Bay of Pigs. The formula of using an NSC subcommittee for control has limitations of its own, and congressional oversight has been a two-edged sword. In short, problems of management have persisted and are likely to do so. On the other hand, covert operations have been seductive, promising action on intractable international situations seemingly outside the awkward framework of war powers, nonintervention in the internal affairs of foreign nations, and coping for ways to get at nonstate actors. Some, especially former practitioners, hold up covert operations as a "third option" between doing nothing and going to war. The likelihood is that post–Cold War covert operations will be frequent, and that existing difficulties with the technique will endure.

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