Covert Operations Reform

A good system for covert action would be one that allowed CIA directors to have some flexibility, but also a strong framework of congressional and public review. This would ensure that elected officials were thinking about the long term effect of their policy measures and that they were staying within legal boundaries.



Of all the CIA’s responsibilities, political covert actions attract the most attention and controversy. 광주흥신소 This is because they often intrude upon another country’s internal affairs and can result in the loss of human life. Additionally, they are by definition secret and therefore do not undergo the public review that is a hallmark of democratic society.

As a result, they have the potential to be misused by corrupt officials or even by those who simply do not understand the nature of the mission at hand. As a consequence, the present system for oversight must be reformed to minimize the chances of abuse without jeopardizing the effectiveness of covert operations.

A key part of this reform must be to provide Congress with sufficient information regarding planned and ongoing covert action. This would allow Congress to make informed decisions about approving a particular operation and would also help to ensure that the actions undertaken in the field are fully integrated with larger foreign policy goals.

A good analogy is the Federal Reserve Board, which meets several times a year in closed sessions to decide the fate of interest rates and the economy. The decision makers do not subject their actions to the scrutiny of the general public because they believe that the long term interests of the country will be better served by provisions for secrecy.


In a pure cost-benefit analysis, the covert paramilitary operations conducted by the US Central Intelligence Agency in the early Cold War period were a fiasco. Despite the huge amount of money, manpower and equipment invested in them, these operations failed to create or expand a viable anti-Communist resistance effort. Soviet counterintelligence penetrated the operatives at will, and competing faction leaders often used CIA-provided equipment to serve their own agendas.

From a policy standpoint, however, the failure of these activities was not necessarily a disaster. They allowed CIA paramilitary officers to learn lessons that proved valuable later on in the 1950’s when they conducted successful paramilitary covert actions in countries such as Guatemala and Iran.광주흥신소

Since the post-Iran-contra reforms adopted in 1991, all agencies that conduct covert operations must satisfy two requirements. First, the President must approve of a covert action before it begins, and secondly, the government must provide congressional intelligence committees with the required information. This requirement, in conjunction with the fact that CIA covert operations are typically much more dangerous than those conducted by the military, has led many thoughtful (and strong) voices to advocate that the military take over some or all of the responsibilities associated with paramilitary covert action. Unfortunately, merely changing the organizational lead for these activities does not guarantee better results. It only increases the risk of mistakes and embarrassment that could harm national security and damage the country’s reputation.


During the Cold War, intelligence agencies used psychological covert operations to influence foreign politics. These operations, involving propaganda, guerrilla warfare, and contact with underground groups in adversary countries, helped to sway the opinions of people abroad and discourage the formation of hostile regimes. They were especially useful in convincing reluctant soldiers to surrender in battle, as demonstrated by the painting ‘Chieu Hoi Mission’, which depicts army personnel airdropping Psy Op leaflets in the Vietnam War.

Overt interventions have a higher risk than covert ones, and if they fail, they may stoke nationalistic sentiment and damage a country’s international reputation. For this reason, leaders prefer to use secrecy and plausible deniability to topple or rescue regimes.

Although Congress must be informed of all covert operations, lawmakers have no veto power over the president’s decisions. They can, however, try to discourage the administration by threatening to hold up next year’s appropriations bill and other measures.

Some have proposed reforms designed to improve the effectiveness of covert action while protecting national security and public morale. For example, some argue that separating clandestine collection from analysis would improve the quality of covert action. However, the fact is that it would create two bureaucracies where there was one before, and it would complicate communication, coordination, and support (including security, training, and funding). Separation also harms analysts who are deprived of access to the end products of covert action and could sully the global reputation of the intelligence community.


In the current political climate, covert operations are under a microscope for their possible abuses. Rather than seeking to find ways of downsizing covert action, however, it is important to examine what is necessary to preserve it. This means looking for reforms that can improve the system without compromising oversight or efficiency. The first such changes should be aimed at increasing the investment in human intelligence to ensure an adequate global presence. HUMINT agents are essential to a successful covert operation because they can infiltrate terrorist and global crime networks and provide critical information that cannot be obtained through technical collection.

Attempting to influence foreign events through covert action is a natural part of diplomacy and foreign relations, but it can be difficult to justify when there are no clear benefits or costs. As a result, covert action is often undervalued and abused. Nevertheless, there is no reason not to examine what covert actions can achieve and how they might be more effective than open-source alternatives.

Even if the CIA’s decisions are sometimes wrong, they must be weighed in light of the nation’s best interests. For example, the Federal Reserve Board meets several times a year in closed sessions to decide interest rates. Though congressmen may berate the Board’s decisions, they realize that the long run health of the economy weighs far heavier than public opinion.