When Might a “Secret” Intelligence Operation or Covert Action Be the Most Appropriate Action to Take?
When a foreign policy objective needs to be accomplished and diplomatic pressure is inadequate due to a country’s unwillingness to cooperate, and a military approach may generate unwanted attention or retaliation covert action may be the best choice. An example of this primary consideration is during the Cold War when the United States government would frequently turn to covert action when diplomacy with a hostile government, such as the Soviet Union was too weak. Conversely, military action also could not be used as the Soviets, had substantial forces in Europe, and after 1949, they also possessed nuclear weaponry.
The risk of retaliation given these odds was too substantial as it may have resulted in too high a loss of resources to the United States. However, covert action is not a “magic spell”, a number of factors need to be considered. An infrastructure for the covert action must be developed and assessed to determine if covert action is indeed feasible. To understand what factors must be considered when deciding if to use covert action, it should be remembered that plausible deniability is the key factor which distinguishes covert action from overt actions.
Firstly the cost of using this method must be looked at, does the benefits outweigh the cost. In this scenario, the cost that is being referred to is the loss of trust by other governments and/or the public if covert operation is discovered. Additionally while, this option offers expediency and flexibility as officials need not explain their plan to the public or allies it also lessens the resources that can be accessed. So it must be determined if the operation is achievable without these resources and ally intelligence.
Secondly, consideration must be given to if performing the operation overtly would make it infeasible? Would the knowledge of a government’s participation change the desired outcome or outright negatively affect the policy objective? For example, if voters in Italy knew that CIA funded the Christian Democratic Party in 1948, the Communists would have labelled the Christian Democrats as U. S. puppets, and the CIA support would have failed. Also, sometimes this feasibility refers to getting other governments to ssist in your policy objective who do not desire direct confrontation with another government. In this scenario covertness can help convince them to support your efforts as they desire a similar conclusion but want to have plausible deniability of involvement. For example, when the United States supported the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s if this had not been done covertly the Soviet leadership could have attacked U. S. allies. This is due to the fact they facilitated the actions of the United States by providing a foundation for covert action in the case of Pakistan.
Other allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia provided arms and materials. However, these allies could be considered to be “soft targets” in comparison to attacking the United States directly. Thirdly, the question must be asked if covert action is necessary to avoid retaliation to either a government or its allies. Also, would overt action lead to deterioration of an already fragile situation? In the late 1940s, for example, the Soviet government knew that the CIA was supporting resistance fighters in the Ukraine, since Soviet intelligence penetrated most of the groups.
If U. S. leaders had admitted responsibility, Soviet leaders would have felt it necessary to retaliate, as was the case when President Eisenhower owned up to U-2 over-flights in 1960, with the result that Khruchchev felt compelled to cancel the Paris summit conference. Then of course as highlighted previously one of the most fundamental questions is can deniability be maintained and is it necessary for the operation. This calls for a thorough assessment of the operation with the focus being paid to the human aspect of it.
This is because the usual source of the release of critical information or complete disclosure of what should be secret resides in the human element of the operation. For example, Berkowitz (1998) commented that the covert operation launch by the United States to eliminate Saddam Hussein in the 90’s was doomed from the start as the Kurdish leader could not be fully controlled and freely released information to the press. Overall covert action should not be used when a government wishes to avoid confrontation for reasons of comfort.
This is pertinent to note as the government may resultantly seem weak and naive if the operation fails. Therefore, before deciding on covert action, a clear set of objectives must be identified. A thorough assessment of the conditions (political and otherwise) should be undertaken. Then a complete operations plan should be developed indicating how this initiative will achieve its goals, which can, then be assessed based on the above criteria to determine its plausibility. Hulnick, Arthur S. 2002.
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