Unlike many concepts in foreign affairs, the secret, sub rosa practice of covert operations has a formal definition officially approved by the president of the United States and embodied in a National Security Council (NSC) directive. According to NSC Directive 10/2, approved on 18 June 1948, a covert operation is an activity sponsored by the United States government against foreign states or groups that is so planned and executed that U.S. responsibility for it is not evident to an unauthorized person and that, if uncovered, the government can plausibly deny responsibility for the action. The operation could be unilateral, in support of a foreign state or group, and have a state or nonstate target—the key aspect is that the activity remain secret. Although not provided for in Directive 10/2, covert operations also can be conducted unilaterally or in conjunction with other friendly, or even adversary, intelligence services in pursuit of common objectives and goals.
Beneath the formal definition, the kinds of activity involved in covert operations fall into a number of broad categories. Chief among these are political action, paramilitary activity, psychological warfare, and economic warfare. The evolution of technology suggests strongly that operational incentives in intelligence work will shortly add a new broad category of cyberaction or computer warfare to the traditional covert action menu. A large-scale covert operation usually has components that involve many or all of these categories.
In political action the object is to influence the internal situation in a foreign country by manipulating local political conditions. Intervention in an election is at the high end of the scale in political action, and might involve financial support for candidates, media advice, technical support for public relations, get-out-the-vote or political organizing efforts, legal expertise, advertising campaigns, assistance with poll-watching, and other means of direct action. More subtly, local situations could be influenced by agents, such as officials of the country targeted for action making decisions in their official capacities that are in the interest of the political action. Mechanisms for creating and deepening opinions are of key importance in covert political action, which often therefore involves propaganda. Some of the earliest Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operations were political actions to influence elections. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, global and domestic interests in democracy and democratic values were such that intelligence agency political actions might be able to benefit from cooperation with or cover from private groups seeking to foment these kinds of institutions and values.
Political action may have objectives short of a change of government. This is particularly true given the perspective since the end of the Cold War, with nonstate actors increasingly dominating the attention of intelligence services. A hypothetical political action, one not known to be in progress but which very likely may be, would be an operation designed to worsen local conditions that permit drug cartels and international criminal enterprises to flourish.
In paramilitary operations the intelligence service (or military force) conducts activities similar to those of constituted military units. Again the target may be a nation or a nonstate actor, but the currency of influence will be force. An operation may involve unconventional warfare, such as commando raids, training, advice, equipment, or command of irregular forces; it may also include support of guerrilla activities, creation of secret networks to oppose an adversary even if a country falls, the active propagation of a coup d'état, collaboration with or reinforcement of local security forces (such as the creation of a security detachment to protect a foreign head of state), and other functions. A number of U.S. paramilitary initiatives during the Cold War period involved cooperation with third country intelligence or military services.
In psychological warfare the object is to mold opinion in the service of other activities, such as diplomacy, political action, paramilitary operations, or open warfare. Activities in psychological warfare run the gamut of the ways in which people absorb information. Traditionally, this has meant leaflets, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and television, all of which have to be harnessed to convey the propaganda message appropriate to the operation. In the twenty-first century, techniques will expand to cover electronic communication by computer and the Internet as well, and intelligence services can create leaflets, finance books, journals, or television/radio programs. They may employ officers to work as journalists, recruit agents of influence, operate media outlets, plant certain stories or information in places it may come to public attention, or seek to deny and/or discredit information that is public knowledge. A distinction is made in psychological warfare regarding whether the target audience is permitted to be aware of the originator of the material they are receiving. In all such propaganda efforts, "black" operations denote those in which the audience is to be kept ignorant of the source; "white" efforts are those in which the originator openly acknowledges himself; and "gray" operations are those in which the source is partly but not fully acknowledged. In psychological warfare theory the attribution of a claim or piece of information included in a psychological warfare campaign has a bearing on the receptiveness of the audience, so that planners consider questions of black versus white carefully.
Economic warfare is aimed at the adversary's production capability and scientific-technological (research and development) base. Often used as part of paramilitary operations or psychological warfare, this technique reduces the target's actual output, retards innovation, or lends weight to claims being made in propaganda. A campaign of this kind may involve paramilitary-style commando raids to sabotage or demolish targets, or on-site actions by agents or sympathizers with identical aims. This variety of covert action can also involve semiopen measures such as preclusively or preemptively purchasing items on global markets to keep them out of the hands of the adversary, or diplomatic actions intended to reduce or eliminate international markets for the adversary's products. In fact, varieties of possible action are limited only by the imagination of practitioners.
Higgins, Trumbull. The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. New York, 1987. Presents a detailed analysis of one of the most spectacular covert operations failures.
Johnson, Loch K. Secret Agencies: U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World. New Haven, Conn., 1996. An overview of intelligence with insightful comments on covert operations.
Kwitney, Jonathon. Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World. New York, 1984. Shows several examples of a process by which covert operations rebound to the detriment of the United States.
Moser, Charles, ed. Combat on Communist Territory. Washington, D.C., 1985. Essays that examine progress in various countries at the high point of Reagan-era covert operations.
Prados, John. Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II Through the Persian Gulf. An in-depth survey of covert operations in which the author demonstrates common features and problems of use of these techniques. Rev. ed. Chicago, 1996.
Shackley, Theodore. The Third Option: An American View of Counterinsurgency Operations. New York, 1981. Argues for covert operations as a cost-effective alternative to military action.
Treverton, Gregory F. Covert Action: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World. New York, 1987. An investigator for the Church Committee warns of the inadequacies of covert action.