US Covert Actions are Meaningful- if properly done
Covert operations are those operations in which the US government is part but which an ordinary observer cannot associate it with. Mostly, these operations are classified as top secret operations in the nation`s interest and are mainly conducted in conditions in which the nation`s security or its foreign policies are threatened. Over several decades the issue of covert operations has raised controversy, especially owing to the working of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since its inception in 1947, and the many allegations surrounding its involvement in many activities both in the US and off seas. In the light of this, it becomes necessary to ask whether it is possible for there to exist completely hidden, or covert actions, and whether, it is even necessary to set up teams or commissions whose action is covert.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has traditionally been the body charged with covert operations under its extended mandate `to perform such other functions and duties affected to national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct` .The agency was created by the National Security Act of 1947. The Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 restated the requirements of a covert action as actions to influence US military, political or economic interests abroad and in which the role of the US will not be apparent or acknowledged in public. Today, covert operations are mainly conducted under the umbrella body name the National Clandestine Service (NCS) which operates three mandates: espionage, covert and counterintelligence services. The underlying principal is that the US should be able to deny responsibility plausibly in case the action`s secrecy is compromised.
The initial decades of US covert operations under the CIA were largely successful. As Scott, remarks, most covert operations conducted by the CIA in the first few decades still remain unknown. In their title “Such other functions and duties: Covert Action and American Intelligence Policy”, the paper lists a series of covert actions undertaken between 1947 and 1973 as revealed by different authorsThese revelations raise questions about whether, indeed, any action can qualify to be called covert, or it is just a matter of time till evidence exists to link the US government with it. Most of the actions classified as covert are either manipulation of foreign elections, toppling governments, organizing resistant movements, support for foreign governments, training foreign military systems among others.
Massive scandals such as the Watergate scandal of 1970s and the Bay of Pigs Fiasco were the first indications that the national intelligence was indeed failing. The CIA came under scrutiny when it emerged the president has become too powerful and there was sensitive abuse of office under the CIA aided national security guise. A case in mind was the Rockefeller Commission appointed to investigate the CIA at a time when the president himself was overseeing a covert operation in Angola. The result was that there was information leak about the covert operation, and the US congress voted against the Angolan operation to avoid embracement to the government. Such misuse of intelligence, together with divisions within the intelligence community, has been the major sources of its declining success. Covert action is founded on national interest. Donald, 2001, in his book “America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses it Role in a Turbulent World” defines national interest as the defense of the well-being of its citizens, their territory and its constitution. To this end, it can be argued that covert operations are essential. Some scholars however think that the term `national interests` maybe becoming outdated and ego-centric, and is bound for reform. The national interest framework of the US is based on the four priorities of: defense of homeland, economic well-being, favorable world order and promotion of values. In a world where emerging superpowers are constantly threatening the US, and where evidence exists to indicate that some maybe aligned with terrorist groups, it is important that covert operations be instituted to avert these dangers. Scott, mentions that the reforms instituted in covert operations in the 1980s to necessitate the presence of grave and unusual circumstances as a pre-condition for covert operations has threatened the success of such operations greatly.
It is therefore necessary to institute an independent, yet objective, security system for covert operations to retain their integrity. Halchin et al in their congressional research paper titled “Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: Current Structure and Alternatives” state that one workable alternative to restoring covert actions integrity is to reconcile the roles of the Senate Committees on Intelligence and Appropriations and the Intelligence Community so as to avoid unnecessary conflicts which expose the policies, as well as erode the confidence of the intelligence society. In addition, a restructuring of the intelligence community so as to attain a balance of powers between the executive and Congress in matters to do with national interests is imperative.
In conclusion, it is possible to have covert operations within a proper integrity framework. Also, covert operations are meaningful and very important for the US in the current world system. However, some changes must be done. Firstly, the body mandated with conducting covert operations must be continuously re-evaluated and refined to ensure its purposes are in line with national interest, is free from manipulation by any one individual including the president, and is independent. In addition, the oversight authorities instituted to manage the NCS must work closely with it to avoid conflicts of interest as those surrounding the Rockefeller Commission and the Angolan covert operation which embarrassed the nation.
Erwin, M. Covert Action: Legislative Background and Possible Policy Questions. Congressional Research Service, 2013.
Erwin, M. Sensitive Covert Action Notifications: Oversight Options for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2013
Halchin, E. Congressional Oversight of Intelligence: Current Structure and Alternatives. Congressional Research Service, 2012.
Johnson, L. Strategic Intelligence – 3. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007,
Scott, J. and Rosati, J. “SUCH OTHER FUNCTIONS AND DUTIES” Covert Action and American Intelligence Policy, 2012.