Intelligence Reform in the Post Cold War Era: WWS 401A

Professor Diane C. Snyder

Covert Action: the Delicate Balance

Zachary Potter

I pledge my honor that this paper was written in accordance with University regulations.


Executive Summary


In the post Cold War Era, shrinking budgets and the international environment justify a re-examination of covert action to determine its relevance and propriety in the face of changing foreign policy and national security priorities. Despite the ideological compromises covert action requires in a democratic country, the current threats to national security not only justify its continued use, but increase its suitability within the bag of foreign policy tools in countering international threats. Covert action in the new era will largely be of a different nature than the covert action of the Cold War and should not be subject to the same public prejudices held against its use. The era in which overthrowing chiefly democratic governments for holding leftist beliefs was acceptable has ended. In the modern era, the role of covert action will be to control, influence, and counter threats such as nuclear proliferation, global organized crime, information warfare, and openly hostile foreign governments.

Evaluation and Recommendations

Capability and Presence

The first recommendation of this report is to increase investment in the Directorate of Operations to ensure a global presence of human intelligence. An adequate global presence is essential to covert operations for several reasons. Often HUMINT agents are in a position to both influence the perceptions of important foreigners and provide essential information for covert operations. In the modern era, where nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, and terrorism are high priority threats, technical collection will not provide adequate support for covert action. Infiltrating terrorist and global crime networks is an extremely difficult, long term project that must be vigilantly pursued. 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, to the nation.


Protecting the nation from covert action is equally important as protecting the nation with covert action. Although the current system of oversight has eliminated many of the opportunities for abuse, one or two more steps could be taken without seriously jeopardizing effectiveness. One of Congress' principle sources of power for oversight is derived from the appropriations process. In order to prevent actions similar to those employed during Iran-Contra, the president should be required to notify Congress in advance of any foreign financial assistance a covert operation will receive. Congress should legislate prior notification for financial assistance to provide themselves with an opportunity to act before the government enters itself into a situation that might entail some later obligation, such as a foreign government expecting eventual reciprocation.

Although the provision requiring Congressional notification for any covert action mission within 48 hours of authorization in the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 was a step in the right direction, it did not go far enough. The president should be required to report to at least the chairmen and the ranking minority members of the intelligence committees, the speaker and the minority leader of the House of Representatives, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate in advance. Reporting to these eight individuals in advance would not be too cumbersome and would allow Congress to use its leverage to stop something before it started, after which point, it may be too late.

Modern Threats

Because the information age is ushering in a host of new security threats by allowing greater international collusion and organization between hostile parties, such as drug traffickers and organized crime groups, the report on the information infrastructure mandated by the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1997 should be expanded to include a description and assessment of the possibilities and intricacies of using the emerging means of information warfare as an offensive measure. The reports on the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions by foreign countries should include an assessment of the human infiltration of that country and covert action options of the intelligence services so that not only is the danger evaluated, but the nations preparedness is too.


Because of the media's ability to undermine a covert action and compromise national security, the intelligence community should attempt to sensitize the media to their power and responsibilities. This can be accomplished by bringing members of the media into the intelligence community for brief visits or through conventional methods such as lectures and conferences. If journalists have a better understanding of the true costs of their actions, then they can responsibility assist the oversight process, rather than just undermining the intelligence community.


Covert Action: the Delicate Balance

Introduction and Synopsis

Throughout United States history, the nation's intelligence community has been growing and developing in a dizzyingly mutable world where consistency is the obvious exception. After the end of World War II, the U.S.S.R and the communist bloc provided consistent adversaries that helped to define and justify the intelligence community, and particularly covert action. Because of the Cold War's dramatic role in shaping the intelligence community, the new era demands a re-examination of the institutions it influenced to determine their relevance and propriety in light of the new international environment. Such an inquiry would necessitate an especially thorough examination of the role of covert action in the future of foreign policy. Because the fight against communist expansion had been the major use of covert action during the Cold War, the attainable benefits of its continued use and legality must be re-weighed against its sometimes heavy costs. Unfortunately, covert action proves surprisingly resistant to analysis because it is one of the most secretive of all government activities.

The analyst, outside of the Directorate of Operations (and possibly within), may never know about the most successful operations, making meaningful cost-benefit analyses extremely difficult. Despite the difficulty, an analysis must be attempted because covert action is a powerful and often dangerous tool designed to manipulate international events, often without either Americans or the targets knowing who did it.

Because of the presence of varying interpretations of covert action, its examination first requires a clear presentation of what it entails. The Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 officially describes covert action as an "activity or activities of the US government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the [US] role will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly."

In practice, covert action is not so easily defined. Attempting to influence others is a natural part of diplomacy and foreign relations, where one's intentions are rarely completely spelled out. Most foreign nations don't even have a specific term for covert action, viewing it and its varying degrees of secrecy as a normal component of statecraft.

For the purposes of this analysis, covert action can be broken down into a few basic activities: support (advice, subsidization, etc.) of political parties, private groups or individuals, covert propaganda, economic operations, and paramilitary or political action operations designed to overthrow or support a regime.

Covert action needs to be distinguished from clandestine collection efforts. The distinguishing feature is that covert action is designed to influence foreign conditions while clandestine operations are designed to provide the U.S. intelligence community with information.

In the current political environment, it is not only important to examine covert action to find what needs to be changed, but also what is necessary to preserve. Because the nation's political mood is favoring smaller government and a reduced budget, it is necessary to examine what the consequences of downsizing could be for the nation's covert action capabilities and whether those consequences would be acceptable. Unfortunately, the nature of the covert action predisposes the debate to a disorienting array of fiery rhetoric and yellow journalism. In order to produce a valuable analysis, one not only has to step away from the emotional pull of impassioned, subjective criticisms, but one also has to step toward those criticisms to understand what is really at the bottom of them. The issues that cause people to react with such emotion often reveal themselves to be the critical questions in the debate.

At the center of most of the dramatic discourse is the fundamental question of covert action's compatibility with the moral tenets of democracy. Does covert action transform a democratic institution into an oligarchic one? Under what conditions would that be acceptable? Answers to these concerns not only require a philosophical evaluation of democracy, but also an inspection of practical concerns. The United States has the benefit of a rich history of intelligence activities to scrutinize to aid the philosophical discussion. Only by juxtaposing the two concerns can one determine covert action's appropriate role in American foreign policy in the new era.

Another significant debate affecting the future role of covert action also incorporates the historical record. Before one can decide on new applications and goals for covert action, one must ask if covert action achieved success in its old ones. It would be irresponsible to look forward without first having learned by looking back. Because covert action involves both emotionally charged and politically sensitive issues, good cost benefit analyses are crucial to responsible use. If the historical record reflects only lasting and burdensome costs offset by marginal, transient gains, then the system may need to be either overhauled or scrapped.

Finally, one needs to look at the inner workings of the United States covert action capabilities and processes for oversight. Could reorganization, such as creating a separate agency for covert action, improve the present system? Also, does the current organization of oversight provide adequate protection against abuse? On the other hand, one needs to ask if the oversight process is stifling beneficial foreign policy opportunities. There are many organizational questions that are important to ask, but any recommendations for reorganization must be asked with a constant awareness of the costs and risks they will carry. The sensitive nature of covert action makes human considerations, from the effects on foreigners' lives to the morale of the agency, which are difficult to measure, critical to the calculus of reform.

Democracy and Covert Action

Covert action campaigns are normally undertaken in situations where public disclosure would somehow compromise the missions. The American system is built upon the idea that policy measures enacted by elected officials are reviewed by the various arms of government in the checks and balances system, as well as by the American people. The system is designed to ensure that elected officials are acting in accordance with the people's interests and are staying within the bounds of the law. Because covert action usually requires both the decisions of elected officials and the consequences of those decisions, to be kept from the people, there seems to be a contradiction between the democratic system and the requirements of covert action. Those who propound this argument usually concede that there may be occasions when covert action would be justifiable on the grounds of national security alone, but argue that it cannot be justifiable in America because it cannot be reconciled with democratic principles.

When one examines the American democratic system, one needs to realize that it does not fit exactly with the theoretical ideal for a democracy or a republic, but it preserves its most important tenets. For example, the current laws of oversight ensure that representatives of the people are kept currently informed. In addition, elected officials in Congress could enact legislation to ban covert action if they thought that its availability was not in the American people's interest. One can find many credible reasons for removing certain categories of decisions from popular review that have been approved by democratic citizens within the American system.

For example, the Federal Reserve Board meets several times a year in closed meeting to decide the fate of interest rates and the economy. Their decisions weigh the long run good of the economy far heavier than they weigh public opinion. Although congressmen may berate the Board's decisions on occasion, they do not change the system because they recognize that the nation would be hurt if they subjected those decisions to the normal process. Analogously, the preservation of covert action can be justified if the aims of democratic institutions are more likely to be achieved with provisions for secrecy.

Covert action during the Cold War period fit this requirement because of the long term threat to American democracy posed by the expansion of communist influence. The Cuban Missile Crisis provided a frighteningly vivid example of how the expansion of Soviet influence posed a security threat to the United States.

While the expansion of communism illustrated the dangers for democratic institutions during the Cold War and the need for covert action, one must investigate if the same calculus can apply to the post Cold War period. Unfortunately, current events are proving that it does. For example, as recently as November 13, 1995, a bomb exploded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia near a building filled with American and Saudi military personnel. Five Americans died and thirty four were injured.

The American presence in Saudi Arabia was designed to facilitate the modernization of the Saudi National Guard and development of there defenses so that the kingdom could protect itself from hostile neighbors and enemies.

Saudi Arabia just provides one example where extremist groups find the Western presence unacceptable and are prepared to "exert all available means to evict these forces."

If, for example, merely knowing about the impending bombing through a HUMINT source were not enough to prevent it, one could employ a covert action mission to sabotage the effort. If one considers countries with whom the United States is not on good terms, then influencing the government to take actions against particular terrorist groups may be best done secretly.

The question of compatibility with democracy is best answered not by either accepting covert action or rejecting it, but rather by establishing the moral boundaries and the limits of secrecy.

In Covert Intervention as a Moral Problem, Charles Beitz describes the issue as the practical problem of organizing the planning and execution of covert operations so that they "serve rather than subvert the aims of democratic government." One needs to establish the procedural safeguards that prevent the abuse of power by those who operate behind the shield of secrecy.

The current oversight system, originally established by the "Hughes-Ryan Amendment" to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, requires prior notification to the Senate and House committees of any covert action through a written or oral presidential finding. Only in extraordinary circumstances may the President wait up to forty eight hours after authorization to notify Congress.

The present system's adequacy in serving democratic aims is best explored through an evaluation of the historical record in general, but also with special attention being paid to abuses, such as violating reporting requirements, the National Security Act of 1947, or even simply the trust of Congress, that occurred during the period when the system was the most similar to the current one.

The Historical Record

Early Period

Answering practical concerns about the present system requires not only an inspection of whether or not it prevented abuses from occurring, but also whether it was ever successful it furthering responsible policy. Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman argues that covert action rarely has been beneficial to the country. He supports his position by claiming that even the short term successes, such as Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, turn out to be failures in the long run.

In both cases, the covert action programs were directed against elected governments that represented widespread populist movements, supporting land reform, redistribution of wealth, and expropriation of foreign owned property. The government installed by covert action that replaced Arbenz in Guatemala was far more repressive than Arbenz and would be followed by increasingly inhumane governments.

In evaluating whether or not these early missions were successful, one has to recognize what the actual goals of the mission were and whether or not they were attained. To continue with the example of Guatemala, the goal of the covert action was not related to installing a government interested in civil and political rights, but instead was largely based on a fear of the future.

The beliefs held in 1954 are characterized by a then top-secret report known as the Doolittle Report to President Dwight Eisenhower stating "It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the U.S. is to survive, long standing concepts of "fair play" must be reconsidered."

When considering the period around 1954, one has to remember that Stalin had only died one year earlier, in 1953, after having established an abhorrently inhumane police state within Russia. America feared that that regime would gain a foothold for expansion in the western hemisphere which was believed to carry far worse implications than the costs of covert action.


A more complete picture of the United States covert action capabilities than its paramilitary and direct insurgent support functions needs to be painted. Melvin Goodman argues that CIA propaganda has had little impact on foreign audiences and should be abandoned. Aside from the unsavory practice of trying to manipulate a people, he claims that it was a waste of time and should be abandoned in the post Cold War period.

The body of evidence seems to contradict Goodman's analysis. For example, in Italy in 1947, a special procedures group was set up to organize propaganda in Italy to prevent a Communist victory. About ten million dollars were moved from the economic stabilization fund to pay for covert propaganda activities that lead to the Christian- Democrat's victory.

The propaganda efforts of Great Britain also provide strong evidence against the Goodman viewpoint. For example, the British used propaganda during World War I as part of their strategy to move the U.S. away from a policy of neutrality and into the war on the Allied side in 1917.

The British also used similar methods in the 1940's. These examples are underscored by the situation in which the lack of propaganda and covert action lead to undesirable consequences. For example, in contrast to the British success in gaining U.S. support in World War I was Imperial Germany's failure in preventing the U.S. from entering and supporting the British and the French.

There were certainly significant other reasons America entered on the Allied side, such as submarine attacks on U.S. shipping and the Zimmerman telegram, but Germany's failure to keep the U.S. out of the war was also a product of an ineffective covert action program aimed at U.S. officials and public, even though there was both a large population with German lineage and an overriding sentiment adverse to European conflict.

During the period of the Cold War, the historical record for propaganda was mixed. While campaigns may have failed in Cuba or Chile, others succeeded in Western Europe. For example, during the Carter Administration, the Soviets launched a large propaganda campaign against the U.S. deployment of a neutron bomb into Europe and the CIA countered with a campaign comparing the bomb to the similarly dangerous Soviet SS-20.

Because the historical record shows both the effectiveness of using propaganda and the dangers of not using it before and during the Cold War, the call to discontinue its use in the post Cold War period appears myopic and poorly thought out. One issue of concern about propaganda efforts is that it might have domestic consequences in addition to the intended foreign ones, a phenomenon known as "blow back." The issue seems particularly relevant to the post-Cold War era because information flows around the globe at an unprecedented rate with the growing use of computer technology, including the Internet. For example, disinformation placed in China could affect American stock markets within minutes of dissemination. Although the concern is legitimate, current practices do not necessitate reform. 98% of propaganda is either true or based on exaggerated and selective truth.

This type of propaganda plays an especially important role in countries that disseminate false or misleading information about the U.S., a practice that did not end with the Cold War. The real issue of concern is the other 2%. Unfortunately, instances arise where disinformation is a necessary evil. For example, in 1954 the CIA was able to unseat the pro-communist leader Jacobo Arbenz without violence by broadcasting the lie that a revolution was underway and that troops were marching toward the capital, causing Arbenz to resign. Although a similar trick may not be practical in the modern era, there may be similar instances in which disinformation is necessitated. As long as the propaganda mission travels through the normal channels of oversight, the current system is satisfactory.


The critical question concerning whether the system is organized to serve democratic aims in the post Cold War period is best answered by a look at the most recent abuses of the system and oversight loopholes, and the changes made as a result. The Iran-Contra Affair marked an unfortunate turning point on the road to responsible use of intelligence capabilities. The intelligence community was emerging from the Era of Skepticism (1974-76) into the Era of Uneasy Partnership (1976-86).

Legislation was emphasizing cooperation between the legislative and the executive branches, democratizing the intelligence process to some degree. Though many intelligence officials were claiming that the oversight process had become too cumbersome, the events that unfolded showed its necessity.

Though Congress limited the amount of covert aid to the Contras to $24 million dollars, it did not forbid the executive branch from seeking outside sources to supplement the aid. After the appropriated aid ran out in March of 1984, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council staff began coordinating private support. In October, Congress prohibited any more CIA involvement with the contras, resulting in the agency issuing a cease and desist order to its stations.

Despite these measures, some activities continued through Oliver North and a handful of CIA agents, such as the "shipping of privately purchased arms to the contras and the construction of a secret airfield in Costa Rica." Toward the end of 1986, a middle eastern paper ran a story about former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane being involved in an arms supply mission to Iran.

It was an extremely secret mission that only a handful of people knew about, including the current Director of Central Intelligence William Casey. The idea was that the sale of arms would both lead to the release of American hostages in Beirut and create profits that could be used to finance the contras. President Reagan issued a finding permitting the sale of arms, but it barred notification of the Congressional oversight committees.

They were to find out through the press. The President was protected from the scandal because National Security Advisor John Poindexter made "a very deliberate decision not to ask the President so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability."

When analyzing the Iran-Contra Affair, one finds much more than an abuse of power and a failure of the system. One also finds various signs that the safety measures were working according to their design. Throughout the development of Iran-Contra, the system threw up innumerable flags that should have warned the President and those involved that their policies were ill advised. For example, the opposition of Reagan's Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the expected opposition of Congress should have warned the executive branch of the peril in pursuing their goals.

A determined administration in many cases will be able to find legal loopholes to pursue its policies if it is determined to do so. For example, the Reagan administration eluded the Boland amendment, written to end paramilitary operations in Nicaragua, by seeking funds outside of the U.S. government.

The sign of a good system will be one that warns the administration when its acts will not be met with support from Congress or the people. Because the CIA and the executive branch will have to go to Congress to seek appropriations in the following fiscal year, congressional support weighs heavily in any decision. The question for reform is how to organize the intelligence community and the oversight process to minimize the chance for abuse while still allowing the maximum amount of flexibility in the system. Without flexibility, a covert action capability is crippled almost to the point of being useless. For example, a NATO country needed CIA help because their counter- terrorist team wanted to know how to blow off the door of a hijacked airliner without injuring the passengers. The CIA station in the NATO country sought permission to give them aid, but after several days passed, the counter-terrorist team contacted another intelligence agency who was able to send assistance by the end of the phone call.

Magic Bullet

The first place to start in an analysis of the optimal organization for the intelligence community and oversight in relation to covert action is the presidential perspective. Examining the ways the president can view covert action as a foreign policy tool elucidates some of the problems of the past and can prevent similar misconceptions in the future. For example, after some striking early successes with covert action, some administrations started to view covert action as something of a magic bullet that they could use to force an issue without having to exhibit strong presidential leadership or well defined policy.

Treating covert action as something of a half measure allows a president to feel as if he is doing something, even if it is bound to be ineffective. For example, in the Chilean election during the Nixon administration, Nixon did not commit enough resources to prevent Salvador Allende from getting the highest percentage of votes. Because Allende did not receive an absolute majority, the election was thrown into Congress, where tradition dictates that they elect the candidate who received the most votes. Nixon said that the Allende regime would be unacceptable to the U.S. and directed the CIA to stop it.

There were attempts to bribe and coerce the Congress, but even the CIA station chief said it was too little, too late. Using covert action in such a manner not only hurt the reputation of the U.S., but also the reputation of covert action itself, starting a destructive cycle leading to more, ineffective campaigns. The destructive cycle begins with a president who supports an operation, but is unwilling to risk his own prestige. The channeling of the profits in the Iran-Contra Affair to the contras embodies the concept. Because the CIA's relationship to Congress weighs heavily in their decisions, the CIA professionals are not going to embrace any program that they believe will damage that relationship. By the end of the 1980's, "few, if any, CIA officers believed that the regular use of covert action was rewarding for the United States politically or, for themselves, personally."

The officers' beliefs show that beginning with bad policy decisions for covert operations results in ineffective operations, sullying the reputation of the entire endeavor, rather than only the policy maker. When public support for an institution declines, the punishment in a democratic government is its elimination or the allocation of less resources to it. Unfortunately, when insufficient resources are allocated to something that requires a highly skilled and tuned infrastructure and engages in politically sensitive activities, then what was once bad becomes even worse and the cycle starts again. The most important reforms for covert action will not be changes in the legal structure of oversight, but will rather be guidelines to end the destructive cycle that turned in the Cold War era and propelled oversight into the spotlight in the first place.

In the delicate balancing act between oversight and efficiency, one should initially look for reforms that could improve the system without compromising either oversight or efficiency. If there are changes that could increase national security without increasing the danger of abuse, they should be the first enacted. Fortunately, there are changes that fit such criteria; however, they are extremely difficult to legislate. The idea, supported universally among all but the most extreme writers, is that covert action needs to be consistent with the overt foreign policy objectives of the nation. One of the first ways this could be enacted would be fairly painless and cost free. Suggested in the epilogue of the Aspin-Brown report, the executive branch could issue reports frequently and consistently describing the changing relationships and foreign policy objectives throughout the world.

When operators need to make judgments in the field, a clear understanding of the country's ultimate mission is essential. Another frequently cited reason is that if the covert action were to leak out, then the public be less likely to react with surprise and indignation.

Ideally, the public would react with approval and understanding. Finally, establishing clear policy objectives would be similar to a preliminary litmus test for public support and would function as a check to bad covert action planning without harming beneficial projects. For example, the Johnson and Nixon administrations' foreign policy objective of preventing the spread of communism was clear, but if they further refined their objectives by announcing the desire to locate communist infiltration in domestic organizations, Congressional and public reaction would have made those administrations think long and hard before they launched anything resembling domestic surveillance or Operation CHAOS.

Another guideline that would benefit both oversight and efficiency would be a principle best explained by Roy Godson in U.S. Intelligence at the Crossroads as "capability in being." If the United States operates with a substandard covert action capability, then not only is the country endangered when an effective operation is needed, the inevitable increase in the rate of failure will lead to increased public disillusionment with covert action. This often leads to further dismantling, starting a dangerous cycle which would lead to the elimination of covert action. The American people do not feel safe enough to abandon covert action, so policy should not force their hand to do it. A highly skilled, covert action capability is a long term project and is necessary for its preservation. For example, the manual indirectly advocating assassination that was provided to the Contras would never have been written if the U.S. covert action capability had been maintained throughout the late seventies and into the early eighties.

Also, the information age is changing the world and the dangers in it to such an extent that America would be foolish to neglect an effective defense even though the Cold War is over. To further illustrate the point, Godson described the intelligence presence with regard to Middle Eastern radical groups as inadequate, a prescient view in light of the Riyadh bombing.

A reform that would help fix the problem would be to expand investment in the Directorate of Operations to ensure a global presence of human intelligence. Because HUMINT agents are frequently in a position to both influence the perceptions of important foreigners and access strategic information, a global presence of HUMINT will increase the global capabilities and efficiency of covert action at a minimal cost. Because many of the modern threats which could be combated with covert action, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and global organized crime, involve many individually low priority threats, technical collection is not a reasonable alternative. Technical systems are normally employed against a limited number of targets and are extremely expensive, so they are usually reserved for high priority threats. Human sources, in contrast, can be deployed to a wide variety of targets inexpensively, allowing them to report the need for technical intelligence when it is appropriate.

In addition, even the best satellite will not be able to report the intentions of terrorist groups, disenchanted nuclear scientists, or underground crime groups, making technical intelligence an inadequate source of information for the Covert Action Staff to know when and how to act. As a simple example, human intelligence could report the intentions of an arms purchase by an organized crime syndicate and the U.S. could respond by secretly emptying their bank account at a crucial moment or by intercepting the arms shipment. Perhaps even the terrorist related tragedies in Dhahran and Riyadh could have been prevented by a quiet covert action operation with the right information. One reform that is related to the expansion of human intelligence that has been suggested to create a more capable covert action capability is to remove the restrictions on the recruitment of assets from certain groups, such as the Peace Corps. Although this reform would give the planners and operators a little more latitude, it would be at a substantial cost to fundamental democratic aims and could even backfire on the intelligence community. If American clergymen and Peace Corps volunteers in foreign countries were being tortured because they were suspected to be CIA agents, the reputation of the intelligence community would be crippled. The work of the Peace Corps, clergy, and journalists in foreign countries is too important to American values to compromise their missions for the benefit of covert operations. The 1997 Intelligence Authorization Act permits either the President or the Director of Central Intelligence to waive the restriction on the use of journalists as an agent or an asset, but mandates notification to Congress.

Because the provision requires congressional notification and a written waiver for the use of one individual, the waiver will inevitably be reserved for the exceptional case and will not undermine the media.


The current organization of covert action within the CIA has developed through years of intentional development, but also through channels such as bureaucratic rivalries and administrative expediency. Examining the possibilities for organizational reform requires evaluating the bureaucracy born out of the Cold War years while constantly keeping in mind the morale and administrative costs to organizational change. For example, if one is considering removing a function of the CIA and turning it over to another bureaucracy, one must take into account the effects such a move will have on people who have been serving the CIA throughout their lifetime and take pride in it as an organization. One of the most pivotal organizational questions was addressed by the Intelligence Community in the 21st Century (IC21) report done by the House of Representatives. This question addresses the propriety of having clandestine activities housed within the same organization as analysis. IC21 suggests that the only reason that clandestine operations and all source analysis are contained within the same agency is that it was believed that for the Director of Central Intelligence to have real control over anything, it would have to be placed in the CIA. IC21 continues, "There was no other managerial logic behind it, and, indeed, until recently, great care was taken to keep these two activities separate."

IC21 quickly credits the current efforts within the CIA to increase cooperation between operations and analysis (the "DO-DI Partnership"), but then continues to recommend the organizational separation of the two. IC21 provides the majority of the support for its recommendation through a description of the traditional organizational separation between the two departments within the CIA. The report describes the intense security measures taken in the early years of the CIA regarding interaction between the two directorates. Employees from either branch were not allowed to visit areas belonging to the other branch without an escort.

Over the years, the restrictions grew gradually less and less rigid, but the new eventual extension to a partnership was resisted by many present and former employees. The major concern, which is related mostly to the clandestine collection activities of the Directorate of Operations, is that too much cooperation between the two departments will compromise the analysts' ability to approach information collected clandestinely both objectively and skeptically. Because of the overlap in informational needs, recruited assets, and skills, IC21 assumes in the separation of analysis and clandestine collection, covert action operations would move into the new agency.

The inseparability of covert action and clandestine collection is not universally assumed. Covert action tends to be the most controversial element of the intelligence community. Often public hostility toward the entire intelligence community is based solely on the public's anger over covert action.

Removing covert action from the rest of the intelligence community could improve both the morale of the analysts and the reputation of their products because they would be shielded from fiascoes like Operation CHAOS and Iran-Contra.

Those who argue for the separation of clandestine activities from analysis also argue that analysts would be able to have better relations with academia. The scholars who object to the CIA usually have problems with covert action, not analysis. They further argue that removing covert action and minimizing its role through a separate, small organization would improve the reputation of the United States government throughout the world and would validate the American commitment to human rights and democracy.

While the international reputation of the United States and the morale of the entire intelligence community are extremely important factors, they must be weighed against the bureaucratic difficulties each level of separation would create. If covert action and clandestine collection were separated from analysis, not only has one created two bureaucracies were there was only one before, but one has also complicated the communication, coordination, and support (including security, training, financing) between the two. The analysts are harmed because they will not be able to assess the threats to national security as well when their relationship with the intelligence collectors is compromised.

Covert operations are also harmed by the separation, and that harm, could also sully the reputation of the United States. The Bay of Pigs clearly illustrates this risk. If there had been consultation between analysis and operations in the planning of the mission, the analysts not only would have been able to provide the operators with invaluable topographical information, but would have also warned them that the Cubans were not going to rise up against Castro. The planning and execution of covert operations are crippled without access to the end or intermediate products of analysis. If one only separates covert action into its own organization, while leaving clandestine collection alone, the same problems still apply and, in many cases, are exacerbated. One must also worry about covert operatives working at cross purposes within the field and the recruitment of more agents than previously would have been necessary.

Although one would hope that the two agencies would hypothetically be able to work together for their mutual benefit, bureaucratic organizations have enough trouble coordinating within themselves. The problems only get worse when there are multiple bureaucracies. The symbiosis of covert operations and clandestine collection is such that some of the best collection operations benefited from covert operations. The U.S. would be unnecessarily shooting itself in the foot if it separated covert action into its own agency.

Another suggestion is to take covert action from the CIA and to give the responsibility to the military. One of the primary missions for the intelligence community is support to military operations anyway, so the Covert Action Staff would still benefit from the end products of intelligence. Even in this organizational framework, the problems from not collaborating with clandestine collection would still exist. For example, while a CIA case officer might know that a certain person is a double agent, in sensitive cases, they would probably be much less willing to divulge that information to the military than they would to their own people within the CIA. Also, because the CIA is a much smaller bureaucracy with an old culture of secrecy, it is much better suited to protecting the confidentiality of covert missions.


The current organization for the principal, external oversight process involves a congressional committee in both the House and the Senate that are, by law, required to be kept "fully and currently informed of the intelligence activities of the United States, including any significant anticipated intelligence activity." The issue of oversight is especially significant to covert action because most of the major drives for reform during the Cold War, such as the reaction to Operation CHAOS, were fueled by objections to and fears about the misuse of covert action.

During the fifties, oversight mainly consisted of informal talks between the Director of Central Intelligence and a few senior members of Congress. By 1974, relations were no longer so cozy between the CIA and Congress. The Vietnam War, Watergate, and the covert operations in Chile created a sense that the process by which decisions were being made needed to change.

Looking for both greater accountability and stronger congressional control, Congress passed the Hughes-Ryan Act which stipulated new reporting requirements to eight different committees. In addition, the President would be required to report, through a written (by assumption, not law) document known as a finding, all covert action campaigns to Congress in a timely fashion.

As reporting to eight committees was deemed excessive and possibly dangerous, oversight now rests with two intelligence committees: the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Although the president must inform congress about all covert action operations (within "48 hours after the decision is made"), the committees don't have any formal veto power over a covert operation proposed by the president. They have a number of means by which they can discourage the executive branch, but the president can operate from a discretionary fund until the next year's appropriations if he so chooses. Although this provision provides some risk that the president will pursue unwise policies that are against the will of Congress, legislators have powerful cards to play to dissuade the president. Not only can they threaten the next year's budget, but they can threaten to bring the issue to the floor, where leaks would be inevitable. If the president's policies weren't already undermined by disclosure, he would find himself not only defending his policies in front of Congress, but also in front of the media and the American people. With these weapons, a determined Congress could be as powerful as a determined president.

Covert action poses a difficult oversight problem because it carries an extreme potential for costly abuse if not properly regulated, but its nature is such that regulation vastly impairs its ability to function efficiently and effectively. The CIA's sluggish response to the request for information concerning the hijacked airliner by the foreign intelligence service illustrates the shackles that regulation puts on covert action and the danger that brings. The question reduces to an evaluation of where the greater danger lies: in the international sphere or at home within America's own political institutions. An analysis of oversight gains new significance when one realizes that the balance has changed since the end of the Cold War. The world is still extremely dangerous in the new era, but the danger has changed and one must ask if the system of oversight still balances the internal dangers with the external.

Changes in oversight were made in the wake of scandals in both the mid-seventies and the late eighties/early nineties. The initial changes made were not enough to prevent Reagan and his administration from abusing their power, but that does not mean they were ineffective. Some additional steps needed to be taken to remove the loopholes that the Reagan administration exploited. Although one cannot regulate away bad faith, one can limit the damage that it can do. The Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 took most of the necessary steps. If a president does not notify Congress in writing within forty eight hours of authorization for a covert action, he will be in violation of the law.

Oral authorization, retroactive findings, and disguised external funding are also no longer possibilities. Although these changes put new constraints on the president, the danger of abuse without them has proved itself sufficiently high to warrant their enactment. Reasons for which the president would not be able to notify at least the necessary eight ranking legislators are hard to imagine. Much easier to imagine is a president not wanting to inform the legislative branch when he is pursuing imprudent, harmful policies. Although the changes made in the 1991 Intelligence Oversight Act are mostly satisfactory, the post-Cold War period of reduced danger can afford a few more regulations with minimal costs to efficiency.

Because Congress' power to discourage rests largely in its control of financing, any large scale funding from external sources should be subject to congressional notification prior to acceptance. This needs to be legislated so that Congress can mobilize its other sources of resistance in the case that the executive branch is using foreign funds to circumvent congressional controls, such as Oliver North and Robert McFarlane did during the Reagan administration. Also, because accepting external sources of funds for U.S. government objectives may result in some future obligation, Congress should be given the opportunity to act before the debt is incurred. This legislation would only impose a minute burden on efficiency while simultaneously affording significant protection from imprudent policies.

The most important reform that could occur would be for the President and his administration to look at the spirit of the law, rather than scrutinizing only the letter. Reagan proved that a determined administration can find ways around the laws with clever legal manipulation, but, in so doing, he weakens the intelligence community and national security in the long run. Clearly, anybody who becomes the president is a clever enough statesman to understand this, so it is largely the responsibility of the voters to elect someone with the integrity to abide by it. Democracy will only be compatible with covert action if it is sophisticated enough to elect citizens who will responsibly manage their power. For example, Dr. Loch K. Johnson describes the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board as mostly an ineffective, executive oversight committee whose positions are regarded as sinecures to be distributed as spoils for campaign assistance.

The President, the intelligence community, and national security would all benefit from the executive oversight committees being staffed by people both interested in serving and legitimately qualified to do so.

Modern Threats

Although covert action will still be used in the traditional manner in the post-Cold War era, such as attempts to unseat Saddam Hussein after the conclusion of Desert Storm, the prioritization of transnational threats requires an examination of the appropriate role for covert action in the new framework.

Fortunately, most of the moral objections to the historical uses of covert action do not apply to its use against terrorists, crime bosses, or drug runners. Sabotaging a crime ring does not provoke the same moral indignation as sabotaging a democratically elected government. In accord with the recommended guidelines, the use of covert action against the transnational threats is consistent with the overt foreign policy goals of the United States. Fortunately, it is also consistent with the foreign policy goals of most other nations, so exposure of a mission is much less likely to sully the reputation of the CIA or the U.S. government either internationally or in the eyes of the American people.

The Directorate of Operations contains specialized groups that execute missions in counternarcotics and counterterrorism, monitor nuclear proliferation, and perform various other duties. Because the experts in the paramilitary group known as Special Operations are "highly skilled in the use of weaponry; covert transport of personnel and material by air, sea, and land; guerrilla warfare; the use of explosives; and escape and evasion techniques," they are prepared for a variety of situations and are invaluable to the fight against the protean modern threats.

The creation of the Committee on Transnational Threats of the National Security Council mandated by the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 will be a valuable asset for maximizing the potential for covert action through coordination with the Defense Department and the State Department. Terrorists, drug cartels, and organized crime groups are often housed within nations which will turn a blind eye or even offer protection for the nefarious groups. This creates an even stronger incentive to expand to a global presence of human resources because it could further law enforcement goals in countries that are not as open to normal diplomatic channels.

The fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to be a high priority threat in the post-Cold War era. Again, most Americans would not have problems with covert action being used to stop nuclear proliferation, so exposure of a mission would not be likely to damage the intelligence community's reputation. One reform that could improve covert action's role in non-proliferation work would be the inclusion of an assessment of the human infiltration and covert action options in the foreign countries evaluated by the periodic reports on non-proliferation mandated by the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997.

Currently, about 85% of covert action proposals originate in the field. Having proposals suggested by people outside of the field with access to a wide variety of sources of information on weapons proliferation could do no harm and could possibly have a significant impact on proliferation.

In addition to benefits the country is deriving from the information age, the new technology is also ushering in a host of new security threats. The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 mandates a report on threats to the national information infrastructure through information warfare or nontraditional attacks. That report, or an independent one, should also include the offensive possibilities for information warfare. In March 1992, the CIA attempted to exacerbate Iraq's inflation problem and undermine their economy by flooding the economy with counterfeit money.

Using information warfare, a similar mission might be possible by manipulating their banking system by computer. In order to prevent confusion, the report should also include the circumstances under which a finding would and would not be required for the developing technology.

The Media's Responsibilities

Because the nature of covert action involves secrecy, the role and the responsibilities of the media must be analyzed. The media can both contribute to and detract from the welfare of the country in relation to covert action depending upon the course it chooses to take. The media played a pivotal role in creating an oversight process for the country's benefit when Seymour M. Hersh exposed Operation CHAOS in 1974.

The media's responsibility goes beyond expos‚s though. It also has the responsibility exhibit restraint in certain circumstances. For example, the number one rule for dealing with terrorists is to avoid giving them press coverage. Ted Koppel probably exacerbated an already dire situation by giving nightly coverage to the hostage crisis in 1979 that ended with Ronald Reagan's inauguration.

The media can also harm covert action by either ruining people's cover or exposing methods. Once a method or cover has been blown, it can never be restored. Ruining valuable sources of information and endangering lives that are crucial to national security is blatantly irresponsible. Unfortunately, there is no way to create legislation that will allow the positive benefits derived from the media while eliminating the negative. The only practical reform is an education initiative. This could be accomplished by bringing members of the media into the intelligence community for brief visits so they could get a perspective from the inside. The intelligence community could also direct traditional methods of education, such as conferences and lecture series, at influential members of the media who could lead and influence the rest of the community.


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