Covert Operations

Covert operations are a means of implementing controversial components of foreign policy abroad in situations where open operation would be disadvantageous. They may involve sabotage, assassination or paramilitary support for coups d’etat.


In the past, such operations relied on the principle of plausible deniability—the head of the originating government should not know about them in case something went wrong. After Iran-Contra, these activities became subject to oversight by intelligence committees.


Covert operations involve the use of clandestine means to change economic and military conditions in another country without public knowledge. Unlike conventional military and police activities that may be openly declared, the sponsor of a covert operation remains anonymous. In a broader sense, this definition also applies to non-military intelligence activities like sabotage and assassination.

In peacetime, covert operations are a tool of policy and in wartime they become a weapon. In either case, their effectiveness depends on a careful balance of political will and technical competence. A key consideration is ‘plausible deniability’—the ability for the head of the attacking power to assert that he or she did not sanction, oversee, or control the operation. In this regard, covert operations are more akin to diplomacy than military action.

Although many different agencies and entities may perform covert activities, CIA is often the preferred agent of choice due to its history and reputation for handling sensitive information. Other entities, such as the Joint Special Operations Command and the U.S. Cyber Command, often conduct highly classified operations that look a lot like covert actions but do not qualify legally as such.


As with any tradecraft, policy dictates the shape and tactics of covert action. Some policies will dictate a set of ends, ways, and means that can be concealed, while others will demand operations that end up on CNN.

Some covert actions involve the development of a military capability, while others involve a more intangible manipulation of foreign political systems. Either way, the goal is to conceal the role of the government in carrying out the operation. This may mean the use of disguising techniques to obscure the activity or it may be achieved by relying on plausible deniability.

The goal of covert action is to achieve an objective when it would be too costly, politically and operationally, to engage in a direct military conflict. As such, it is an instrument for a president to use when it is not in the national interest to commit troops to a conflict abroad.

The historical record shows that covert action can be effective, but it is important to study the lessons of its failures as well. A good cost benefit analysis is essential to responsible use. If covert action carries permanent and burdensome costs for marginal and transient benefits, the system needs to be reviewed or overhauled. This includes consideration of the moral implication of covert action and its compatibility with the moral tenets of democracy.


Covert operations employ an array of tools and methods to influence events in foreign nations without the Americans or their targets knowing who is doing what. These activities include support, training and indoctrination, manipulation (including “dirty tricks”), and monetary disbursements to individuals or groups that work in the service of U.S. interests or to pro-American political parties and trade unions.

The goal is to use these actions to achieve the overt policy objectives of the nation. For example, to deter the spread of communism in the 1980s, CIA officers provided financial and logistical support to Solidarity, the Polish trade union that eventually developed into a mass movement opposing atheist Soviet Communism.

It may be difficult to judge whether the costs of an action outweigh its benefits, especially for activities that qualify as espionage, which have long been seen as a normal component of statecraft. The fact that retaliation is often not feasible because of the risk of escalation may also make it easier to pursue covert actions.

The challenge for reformers is to find changes that increase oversight and efficiency without increasing the risk of abuse. Ideally, such improvements should not compromise either efficiency or national security, and they must take into account human considerations like the impact of covert activities on foreigners. This delicate balancing act makes it particularly important that any reforms consider the effect on the morale of the agencies involved.


In practice, it’s hard to see how covert operations can be fully effective. Even when they succeed in their immediate goal, they usually end up failing over the long term. That’s because the very secrecy of covert actions can create moral hazard. If a mission fails and is revealed, it harms the agency’s reputation in the eyes of the public. It also hurts the people involved in the mission, by ruining their cover or exposing their methods. In the long run, such damage undermines the effectiveness of the agency and its ability to accomplish its mission.

While it’s easy to find examples of a nation being stung by blowback from a covert operation, that risk is often exaggerated in the movies. In reality, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that often accompany these operations reflect political events and policy, rather than the success or failure of the operation itself.

While the president must inform Congress of a proposed covert action, they don’t have an official veto power over it. However, legislators can use their leverage to discourage the executive branch from pursuing an unwise policy. For example, they may threaten to cut the next year’s budget if the president goes ahead with a plan that isn’t in their interest. One solution would be to separate covert action from clandestine collection, but this has a number of drawbacks.