Covert Operations

The Eisenhower administration kept up a busy flow of covert activities. These included political action programs as well as paramilitary and psychological warfare efforts aimed mostly at putative communist foes in the Third World.


Since 1974, American law requires that covert actions be justified beforehand in a presidential finding and that the administration notify congressional intelligence committees promptly. Both requirements have proven problematic.


Covert operations, also called covert action, are government-sponsored activities that have as their objective influencing economic or political conditions abroad without publicly acknowledging a U.S. role or allowing plausible denial of a U.S. role, according to the Department of Defense definition. The term contrasts with clandestine oper 흥신소 ations, which are activities that conceal the identity of a sponsor but do not meet the broader definition of covert actions.

These activities can involve either paramilitary or nonparamilitary elements, and they can be unilateral or in support of a state or nonstate target. They can have state or nonstate objectives and be aimed at foreign states or groups of individuals.

The practice has a long history in warfare, starting with the fomentation of rebellions by agents of another power. For example, in the Bay of Pigs operation of 1961, CIA agents supplied weapons and trained Cuban guerrillas. In the aftermath of World War II, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration was heavily involved in covert actions, most of which were aimed at putative communist foes and almost all of which took place in the Third World.


Covert operations can include political action, paramilitary activity, and psychological warfare. They may also involve economic warfare, such as the recruitment and em 흥신소 ployment of mercenaries or money laundering. These broad categories of covert actions have a long history in war. Fomentation of rebellions is a classic example, as are various government schemes to overthrow the governments of other powers and instigate civil war.

Unlike espionage, which seeks information, covert action has the ability to affect events directly. It also has the potential to have unintended consequences both foreign and domestic. Whether the result is a failed coup, sabotaged centrifuges, or smuggled weapons of mass destruction, it’s important to recognize that covert operations are not the same as intelligence activities and to understand their unique role.

The set of documents that make up this collection focuses on two distinct, yet occasionally overlapping, thematic areas: the control and management of covert operations, and the details of particular covert activities. The first strand includes the director of central intelligence nomination hearings through the era of Stansfield Turner, James Woolsey, and George Tenet, as well as various Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearings.


The classic CIA covert success has been the 1954 overthrow of the popularly elected Labor Party government of Guatemala by a combination of psychological warfare and paramilitary action. The successor government was an authoritarian oligarchy. Other successes have been less spectacular but still significant. Since World War II the United States has relied on below-the-radar aid to help pry open closed societies, involving a range of activities from coordinated letter-writing campaigns and forged documents to radio broadcasts and exchange programs for students, journalists, and academics.

As the challenge of worldwide Soviet domination became clear, the President entrusted CIA with the authority to manage many covert operations, especially in Third World countries. In the early 1950s he also created the Psychological Strategy Board to coordinate his mental warfare policy. Nevertheless, covert operations remained the most bureaucratically prominent of CIA’s efforts, and the agency found it difficult to reconcile its commitment to these projects with other demands on its resources and time. It would be years before a more effective management system was developed. Until then, the DCI and the President himself held a monopoly on decision-making for these projects.


Covert operations are a tool in the arsenal of state power. As such, their effectiveness can only be enhanced by ensuring that they are properly aligned with policy. If not, they can cost the nation both domestically and internationally.

The most obvious example of this occurred with the Bay of Pigs, in which CIA intervention failed to remove Castro from power. It instead brought Cuba closer to the Soviet Union and precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis. Other examples can be found in the history of attempts to subvert foreign governments.

Over time, this prompted a need to improve the oversight of covert action. The Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974 stipulated that any covert action must be reported to Congress through a presidential finding. This system, though still problematic at times, has helped to limit the risk of exposure and improve the chances of success.


Covert operations can serve a variety of policy goals, from promoting disaffection among the citizens of a target country to steering their decision-making through clandestine means. They may be nonviolent or involve paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the target state.

The CIA’s involvement in covert paramilitary activities grew during the Reagan administration, with a significant portion of this effort directed at nonstate actors such as terrorists and drug traffickers. Other CIA covert operations involved helping the Polish trade union Solidarity develop into a peaceful mass movement opposing communism.

Managing these activities is challenging for any president. While he or she might have a general sense of the need to take covert action, there is often little time for detailed examination and management. In the past, a president’s only opportunity to review covert activity was during meetings of an interagency group that had been established before the Bay of Pigs and has since gone through several names: the 303 Committee, the 40 Committee, and the NSC Deputies Committee.

Such groups, while useful in identifying problems in progress and recommending course corrections, are often too small to protect the president from his or her own misjudgments and whims. There remains a nontrivial risk of tactics driving strategy, as exemplified by the Iran-Contra affair.