Covert Operations Policy Guidance

Covert operations require a certain amount of policy guidance to ensure that they are successful. Bad policy decisions will result in ineffective or sullied operations, which will damage the reputation of the entire endeavor and the officers involved.


The CIA’s policy staff relies on a variety of sources to make decisions about covert operations, including technical intelligence and human intelligence.


Covert operations are government actions that involve an effort to change the economic or military situation of a foreign country or territory in a secret way. These activities differ from clandestine action, which is the more “traditional” form of espionage or intelligence. Covert operations also differ from front organizations, which are a less formal, more paramilitary form of covert action.

The term is used for a variety of activities, including sabotage, assassinations and support for coups d’etat. They are undertaken when openly operating against a target would be disadvantageous and often violate the laws of the sponsoring state. Covert operations may be unilateral or conducted with allies and friends to gain their cooperation in controversial components of the sponsoring nation’s foreign policy throughout the world.

While the CIA leads covert action, it is not the only agency authorized to do so. The Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 officially identifies covert operations as an activity of the United States government. However, Congress does not have a veto power over the president’s decision to conduct covert actions. The committees do have a number of ways to discourage the president from pursuing unwise policies, such as by threatening next year’s budget, or by bringing the issue to the floor for debate. Ultimately, the committees’ main tool for dissuading the president is the risk that exposure of an ineffective or dangerous covert operation will damage the reputation of the executive branch and sully its reputation with the public.


Covert operations serve the national security objectives of the United States. They are not a substitute for open intelligence gathering or military force. They are used to create specific conditions in a target state, such as economic disaffection, or steer its policy via surreptitious manipulation. They can be violent in nature, such as sabotage or assassination, or nonviolent, such as information warfare or political interference. They must be able to fulfill their objective without anyone knowing that the sponsor is involved. This is known as plausible deniability.

A major challenge is to organize a system that minimizes the chance of abuse while maintaining flexibility for covert action, which is essential to the nation’s safety and prosperity. Since Congress’ principal source of authority for oversight is derived from the appropriations process, a president who wants to avoid actions like Iran-Contra must ensure that Congress knows what he intends to do before funding any covert action activity.

The organization of the bureaucracy is another challenge. Separating covert action from clandestine collection would hamper the effectiveness of both and increase the chances for error, but many collections are dependent upon the information gained through covert action. The symbiotic relationship between the two makes it unwise to break them apart. Finally, the role and responsibilities of the media must be analyzed. They can either contribute to or detract from the success of covert operations, depending on their course of action and the decisions they make.


Covert operations often involve the recruitment of dissenting elements in foreign political systems as an instrument to bring about change. More modest covert operations may simply neutralize a hostile government by replacing it with one that is more pliable. Regardless of their scope, most of these efforts are designed to influence international events without either American or foreign personnel ever knowing who sponsored them.

Although the president must authorize covert action in advance and report the results to Congress, legislators do not have a formal veto over any particular operation. However, they can use the threat of withholding next year’s appropriations to discourage unwise policy and ensure that no unauthorized activities occur.

While the CIA is the primary source of covert action, the military and other agencies are also involved in many operations. The CIA uses paramilitary units called covert action teams, but also recruits members of the regular military and special forces for these operations.

While many people are aware of the CIA and its operations from popular movies and TV shows such as Mission: Impossible, Prison Break, Alias and Burn Notice, few understand how covert operations actually work in practice. A large portion of these operations are based on intelligence collection, which requires the collaboration of analysts and covert operators. If this collaboration is severed, the end products of analysis will not reach covert operations and the planning of covert operations will be crippled.


Covert operations give policymakers options to achieve objectives when direct military intervention is undesirable or the situation requires ambiguity. By infiltrating terrorist and global crime networks, a nation can gain valuable intelligence to inform future policy decisions. In addition, covert action can be used to neutralise threats that would otherwise require a costly military response, or to prevent a target state from ascending to the next rung of escalation dominance.

Non-violent covert operations can cause disaffection among a target government’s population or steer its decision making by placing agents in key positions, while violent covert operations can include sabotage and assassination. Moreover, the secrecy that covers covert action may protect interveners from some of the fallout when it fails to meet its immediate objective—the essence of plausible deniability.

In the delicate balancing act between oversight and efficiency, the first changes to be considered should be those that do not compromise either. Separating covert operations from the intelligence community can hamper coordination between analysts and operators, thus reducing efficiency. For example, a failure to consult with analysts before launching the Bay of Pigs contributed to the failed operation’s ineffectiveness and tarnished the reputation of the intelligence agency involved.

A democracy cannot fully co-exist with covert operations, but it is possible to find a balance between the two if leaders are willing to employ them in the face of clear national security risks. Ultimately, a president must be intelligent enough to understand the limitations of covert action and the risks of using it when not properly supported by policy and legal authority.