Covert Operations

Covert operations are activities of a political and military nature carried out so as to permit plausible denial by the sponsor. Under the current system of oversight, the President must notify Congress through a written finding about all covert action campaigns.


The problems that arise from separating covert action from clandestine collection are real. However, there are reforms that could improve the system without compromising either its oversight or efficiency.


Clearly the first issue in any discussion of covert action is the question of its compatibility with democracy. There are a variety of ways to answer this philosophically, but it is important to look at the practical concerns as well. It is also necessary to examine how the institution of covert action has worked in the past to determine its future role.

Ideally, the best solution would be to establish procedures that prevent abuses of covert action without jeopardizing its effectiveness. It is hard to imagine that there are not many ways to accomplish this, but the key is to focus on the spirit of the law rather than on the letter of it. The Reagan administration proved that a determined President can work around the laws of covert operations with clever legal manipulation, but this only weakens the institution in the long run.

One of the most obvious ways to limit opportunities for abuse is by requiring that any financial assistance for covert actions go through Congress, as it does with other foreign programs such as foreign aid and military procurement. This is an essential measure, as it will make it much more difficult for the President to hide money or resources from Congress.


The term “tradecraft” is mostly associated with intelligence and espionage activities. It may have acquired that association largely because of the John le Carre novels in which it appears, though some believe it was already in use before World War II.

Tradecraft consists of the skills and techniques needed for clandestine operations. It includes codes, disguises, surveillance and counter-surveillance measures, covert communication, and the handling of equipment. It also includes the ability to move in environments with varying degrees of permissibility.

For example, if an agent is in a country with strict security rules, it is important to be able to communicate without leaving clues. This is accomplished through the use of dead drops, a pre-agreed location where an envelope or other container containing information can be left for someone to pick up on a certain date and time. This allows the agent to convey information without having to meet face to face with a case officer. This can be useful if the agency does not want an agent to become a target of the local intelligence community or police.


Covert operations involve a range of political goals, from fomenting guerrilla movements to supporting coups d’état. They can be state sponsored or conducted with the assistance of front organizations. The activities of these groups are sometimes similar to, or even overlap with, the activity of the operatives themselves.

The documents in this set focus on two distinct, but occasionally overlapping, thematic areas: the control and management of covert action and the details of particular covert operations. The collection includes the Director of Central Intelligence nomination hearings, which often expose conflict between the CIA and the legislative branch.

It also provides important context for the study of what it means for a covert operation to succeed. The idea of success as a socially constructed concept has profound implications for understanding both the use and limits of covert action. Its significance is illustrated by the case of the CIA’s 1953 effort to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, one of the most successful covertly-organised coups of the modern era.


For covert action to succeed it must involve an appropriate blend of means. It cannot be solely based on technical intelligence; HUMINT (human intelligence) must play a key role, as must infiltration of terrorist or global criminal networks.

Fomentation of rebellions by one country against another has a long history in warfare; examples include the British plot with royalist agents against Napoleon (1800-1804), French schemes to topple governments in Mexico, Persia and Turkey (1912-1916) and recruitment of guerillas to oppose the Spanish government in World War II (1934-1944). Providing money or equipment to support a civil resistance movement can also be considered an aspect of covert action, such as Casey’s encouragement of Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s.

The need to maintain plausible deniability places a premium on the approval and management of covert operations by organs of government beyond the CIA itself. During the Cold War this was done by an NSC subcommittee known as 5412/2 or, by its code name at the time, the Special Group. The group changed names over the years but retained its responsibilities of reviewing, monitoring and approving covert operations.


Covert operations involve clandestine means to pursue a foreign policy objective. They can be peaceful, as in the case of Orde Wingate’s assistance to the Polish trade union Solidarity, or violent, such as sabotage and support for armed insurgency against an opposing power.

Peacetime covert action has a requirement of “plausible deniability.” This is meant to reduce the political fallout if a covert operation fails or reveals too much about the sponsoring state. This means that a head of state should be able to deny he or she authorized the operation even in a court of law.

In addition to requiring “plausible deniability,” covert operations must have adequate technical collection support. Without it, a country cannot infiltrate terrorist and global crime networks or prevent nuclear proliferation or other threats.