Covert Operations

Covert operations come in various forms, but they usually fall into four broad categories. They include political action, paramilitary activity, psychological warfare, and economic warfare.


The Eisenhower administration was heavily involved in covert operations, mostly against putative communist foes in Third World countries. The resulting operations included the Tehran and Guatemala coups, along with propaganda and psychological warfare activities.

Political Action

Covert operations can involve political action, paramilitary activity, psychological warfare and economic warfare. They may also involve human intelligence, a critical resource in intelligence work. Human intelligence can report the intentions of terrorists, disenchanted nuclear scientists and underground crime groups. A covert operation can then respond by secretly e 광주흥신소 mptying their bank accounts or intercepting arms shipments to the point that the criminal organization decides to change its plans and stop the transaction.

Despite their secrecy, covert operations can cause considerable damage when they go wrong. They can create a great deal of tension and suspicion in countries that are the targets of these operations. In addition, they can have the effect of reducing U.S. credibility by raising questions about America’s moral stance on the world stage.

Poznansky notes that covert actions can be a useful tool to counter the influence of foreign powers, but it is important for these efforts to be clearly articulated in the public domain. This will ensure that the United States can avoid being accused of hypocrisy in its dealings with other nations.

The challenge in the delicate balancing act between oversight and efficiency is to find ways to improve the effectiveness of covert operations without increasing the danger that they will be misused. The best way to do this is to focus on reforms that will enhance national security without posin 광주흥신소 g new dangers of abuse.

Paramilitary Activity

The primary aim of covert operations is to fulfill mission objectives without anyone knowing who sponsors them. This distinction sets them apart from clandestine activities, which do not seek to conceal the identity of their sponsor but rather focus on obscuring the activity itself. Covert operations range from relatively bloodless propaganda of the ‘cultural diplomacy’ variety to the surreptitious paramilitary support of foreign fighters in an armed conflict.

The early Cold War period saw the CIA launch a number of paramilitary campaigns. From a cost-benefit perspective, these were largely failures, although they were able to develop the capabilities of operatives and provide valuable experience. One exception was the Ford administration’s successful paramilitary campaign against a socialist majority government in Angola, which was halted when Congress amended its funding provisions.

Despite such failures, the use of paramilitary action continues to increase in the US. Part of this trend can be accounted for by more stringent requirements on what kinds of covert operations require National Security Council subcommittee approval, a reform begun in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

But the need to manage these operations within an awkward framework of nonintervention in the internal affairs of foreign nations and diplomatic disputes over retaliation still presents formidable challenges. Even if the military is better equipped to handle covert paramilitary operations, the problems that have plagued past efforts will likely persist in this new era.

Psychological Warfare

In a war of influence, it’s important to have more than just force. This is why Donovan and Jomini emphasized psychological preparation for warfare, or “warfare psychologically waged.” Psychological operations (PSYOP) are an attempt to influence the mindset of the enemy through information, propaganda, and deception. PSYOP activities may be conducted on a tactical or strategic level, and can include loudspeaker broadcasting, airdropped leaflets, radio and television broadcasts, various publications, and even placement in foreign news media.

PSYOP can encourage popular discontent with an adversary’s leadership, degrade the military’s ability to conduct or sustain operations, or discourage aggressive actions. The goal is to reduce an adversary’s morale, ultimately forcing them to surrender.

Unlike overt action, covert operations tend to have less variability in their outcomes. This makes them a safer option when intervening in regime change or regime rescue. Moreover, they allow the intervening forces to avoid dirtying their hands by maintaining plausible deniability.

However, if the military wants to reap these benefits, it must modernize its capabilities in the information environment. This includes the information collection, analysis, and exploitation (IACE) process that supports psychological operations. It also requires that commanders understand the pace at which an audience’s behavior changes, so that their influence campaigns are calculable and have real world effects. In this way, it must move beyond the clichéd phrases of PSYOP personnel that “behavior change takes time” and into a realm of effects-based results.

Economic Warfare

Covert operations often involve economic warfare. For example, a country could be encouraged to engage in self-destructive behavior by flooding their banking system with counterfeit money, or their military might be discouraged from engaging in unprofitable wars by undermining their economy. Although these types of missions tend to be less dangerous than those involving paramilitary activity or psychological warfare, they are still difficult and require extensive preparations. As a result, these types of covert actions are rarely undertaken.

While the current oversight system has eliminated many of the opportunities for abuse, some changes are worth considering. It is important to begin with reforms that can increase national security without significantly compromising oversight or efficiency. One such change would be to ensure that the president is required to notify Congress before pursuing any financial support for a covert operation. This is a small step that could have a big impact, especially in the wake of the Iran-Contra fiasco.

Another possible reform would be to ensure that the analytical and operational components of the intelligence community work together. This symbiosis is important for both the morale of analysts and the reputation of their products. The Bay of Pigs disaster could have been avoided if analysts had consulted with operators regarding their objectives. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic structure of most intelligence agencies makes it very hard to coordinate with each other.