Covert Operations and Oversight

Covert operations involve a broad menu of activities. They can include political action, paramilitary activity and psychological warfare.


A formal definition of a covert operation is approved by the president and embodied in a National Security Council directive. The definition states that a covert operation is one sponsored by the United States that, if uncovered, c서울흥신소 an be plausibly denied.

Transnational Threats

Covert operations are designed to influence international events without the American people or their targets knowing who is behind it. This makes it difficult to have meaningful cost benefit analyses because elected officials’ policy measures and the results of those decisions are kept secret. The American system is built upon the idea that elected officials’ actions are weighed and scrutinized by all the arms of government in a checks and balances process, so there is an inherent tension between democratic ideals and the requirements of covert action.

In addition to causing tens of thousands of drug overdose deaths each year, transnational criminal organizations threaten the United States in a number of other ways: by degrading the security and stability of allied and partner nations, fostering corruption, supporting insurgent and terrorist groups, and exploiting and endangering vulnerable populations. They also cause economic harm by smuggling illegal drugs, counterfeit goods and arms across borders, as well as through illicit deforestation and logging.

The threat of transnational organized crime is a key consideration for any discussion on the future role of covert operations. It is vital that any new applications of covert operations be evaluated with a thorough cost benefit analysis. This includes understanding whether the historical record reflects lasting, burdensome costs for marginal, short term benefits. Moreover, it is essential that the current separation of covert action and clandestine collection be reviewed. A lack of coordination between the two agencies has been at the root of fiascos like the Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra, and a separation will hamper their morale as well as the reputation of the entire intelligence community.서울흥신소

Moral Concerns

Covert operations carry an extreme potential for abuse that must be weighed against the costs of oversight. A major concern is that if the operation is ineffective or the president’s actions are seen as unjustified by the American people, public support will decline, and that will sully the reputation of the institution. The officers who carry out covert actions believe that such a loss of support is a real danger, and they want a system to prevent this from happening.

This requires a careful evaluation of the moral tenets of democracy, and the United States has a long history to examine for clues as to what would constitute a responsible use of covert action. A second consideration is a practical matter that involves the ability to perform effective intelligence activities without relying on the public’s support.

Human intelligence is the lifeblood of covert operations, and a global presence of HUMINT agents is essential. This is because infiltrating terrorist and global crime networks is a complex, time intensive project that cannot be completed with technical collection alone.

The symbiotic relationship between analysis and operations is necessary for success, and it would be crippling to separate them. In addition, such separation would sully the reputation of the U.S. government domestically, as well as internationally. The officers who carried out the Bay of Pigs mission, for example, believed that if it had been revealed before it began, the public would have reacted with indignation and doubted America’s intentions.


Oversight of covert operations is a complex issue, since they impose a great deal of risk on both national security and domestic political institutions. The dangers are great enough that they make the need for oversight a vital aspect of covert operations. However, it is difficult to balance that need with the need for secrecy and a requirement for rapid action.

During the fifties, oversight for CIA covert actions consisted mainly of informal talks between the Director of the CIA and a few members of Congress. However, this cozy relationship came to an end after the Watergate scandal and the revelation of Operation CHAOS by Seymour Hersh in 1974. Congress responded by passing the Hughes-Ryan Act, which stipulated that the President must report all covert action activities through a written document called a finding to eight committees of Congress.

The committees do not have a formal veto over the President’s decision, but they have a number of powerful cards to play in order to discourage him. For example, they can threaten to cut off funding for the operation or even call a floor vote on it. Unfortunately, this process can be hampered by the fact that many people who have no experience with the intelligence field tend to associate covert action with movies that portray CIA agents as invincible heroes.


As the Cold War ends, the United States must reexamine covert action to ensure that it serves national interests in a new era. This reexamination should be guided by questions about whether the current apparatus is effective in an environment where international threats are highly mutable and covert operations must remain as hidden as possible.

The problem is that hiding an operation’s sponsorship in the name of plausible deniability makes it much harder to get the kind of results needed to justify their expense. Even though the CIA has a unit whose job it is to make these decisions, they are still not easy.

In addition to the usual interagency meetings, a CIA proposal for a covert action is often first discussed in the Special Group (NSC 5412/2). This committee was created by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman and is essentially an NSC subcommittee with responsibility for approval, monitoring and review of covert activities.

The committee has no formal veto power over a president’s proposed covert action, but it does have many tools at its disposal to dissuade the executive branch from pursuing unwise policies. For example, Congress has the ability to threaten a president’s next year’s budget if the executive branch pursues an action that Congress opposes. This threat can provide a powerful incentive to a president to make sure that the intelligence community’s proposals for covert action will be successful before he commits any resources.