Covert Operations

Covert operations are political, paramilitary and psychological actions that can’t be revealed in the open. They are a crucial option when the disarmament of an enemy through direct military action isn’t feasible.


In the United States, a number of interagency bodies oversee and approve covert operations. These include the CIA’s Special Group and a Defense Department committee.


Covert operations are actions that seek to influence foreign conditions without exposing or highlighting the role of the state conducting them. This can include supporting political parties or private groups, as well as paramilitary or military operations that may overthrow a government. It may also involve propaganda, economic support, and other forms of indirect action. These operations must be carefully planned to conceal the identity of their sponsor and allow plausible denial. They are distinct from clandestine collection efforts, which collect intelligence for the U.S. Intelligence Community.

A key element of covert operations is human intelligence, or HUMINT. This is often needed because technical collection alone cannot provide the full picture of the targets of covert operations. It is important to invest in this area and keep it growing, especially in areas where proliferation, terrorism, or global crime are of high priority.

One major problem with covert action is that it often stretches the limits of what can be concealed, even with a careful approach. Some covert operations are simply too large to conceal, and this is not necessarily a failure of tradecraft; it is usually a result of policy. For example, Iran’s network of spies in the Middle East enables it to operate much more effectively than its weaker military might suggest.

The scope of covert activities is so broad that they can often conflict with the objectives of other national security agencies. This is why coordination among these agencies is essential. In addition, it is essential to resolve incidents in a timely manner. This not only identifies the perpetrator and sends a message to future malefactors, but it also prevents other incidents from being inadvertently affected by previous failures.


Covert operations are used to achieve strategic goals when open action against a foreign country would be disadvantageous. They can involve sabotage, assassinations, or support for a coup d’etat. They may also include non-violent measures such as propaganda and the establishment of front groups. The purpose of these operations is to change economic, political, or military conditions abroad without revealing the hand of the sponsoring government. They differ from clandestine action, which is the more traditional form of intelligence activity.

Covert actions are often portrayed in popular novels, movies, and TV shows. Examples include The Company, a fictional secret organization from the American TV drama/thriller Prison Break and the television series Alias, Burn Notice, and 24. They are also featured in numerous video games and comics.

These activities are important in the current international system because they help to maintain a balance of power. Covert action can supplement other instruments of national power, such as diplomatic initiatives, and provide policymakers with more options when confronting a problem. They also provide a measure of flexibility in the face of changing circumstances.

Covert actions can be a useful tool to counter threats such as nuclear proliferation, global organized crime, information warfare, and openly hostile foreign governments. However, they must be carefully weighed against their costs and risks. They should also be integrated with other security tools, such as intelligence collection and the training of proxy forces. Moreover, they should be accompanied by a robust global presence of human intelligence (HUMINT).


Covert operations involve the use of military and paramilitary forces that are not officially sanctioned by a state. They are often carried out in war zones and can be extremely dangerous. However, they can also be effective. They can undermine a hostile government and influence a country’s politics. They are not a standalone tool and must be used in conjunction with other tools of power, such as diplomacy or the use of force.

They can also be useful in irregular warfare. For example, they can neutralize a hostile state by forming a rebel group with a common cause and using it to replace that country’s leadership with a more pliable one. This is a strategy that was favoured by Western powers during the Cold War.

Another issue is the danger of escalation. While it may be impossible to know whether a covert operation has succeeded, there is always a risk that it could lead to a more destructive conflict. As such, it is important to find a balance between the costs and benefits of an operation.

Although the CIA has a long history of covert action, the era of Cold War-style adversaries is ending. This requires a reexamination of its role in national policy. The new era calls for an examination of the institution’s legitimacy and its effectiveness.


Despite the benefits of covert operations, they have their own costs. For one, they require the use of human resources, and the ability to operate in a foreign country without being observed or questioned. In addition, their reliance on plausible deniability makes them vulnerable to exposure, even by accidental means. The leaking of covert activities is often damaging to a country’s reputation and can lead to public outrage.

Moreover, they often involve the use of “agents of influence,” persons who can manipulate either a nation’s government or its people. These agents can be taskable, as in a Mossad operation targeting terrorists, or what Lenin called “useful idiots,” who are influential apologists recruited to propagandise for the attacking power. Nonetheless, the cost of these activities can be very high, especially for democratic states that seek to minimize their risks.

Since the mid-1970s, Congress has required the executive branch to provide it with more detailed information about covert actions. While some critics of covert operations call for a reduction in its scope, others believe that it must be maintained as a tool to counter the designs of rogue states, international terrorists, and drug cartels. It is critical to examine the underlying policy issues before making a decision on the future of this activity. In the current political climate that favors smaller government, this analysis is all the more important.