Covert Action

By Michael Richter

Published on May 7, 2015

Haul now, Trojans, lumber into the city, and do not in your heart fear any clever packed ambush of the Argives. -Homer, The Iliad

With these prophetic words, King Priam of Troy succumbs to what can be called the most celebrated covert action in history, and like any well executed mission of its kind, the great wooden horse never appears directly in the narrative, at least not in the Iliad. “It lurks just beyond the poem’s horizon,” is how the classical scholar George Fredric Franko describes the horse’s role, and the deadly ploy is mentioned only once by Homer in the Odyssey, when Menelaus recalls for his “dear wife” Helen the cunning displayed by Ulysses in hatching the bold scheme that proved so decisive: “What endurance too, and what courage he displayed within the wooden horse, wherein all the bravest of the Argives were lying in wait to bring death and destruction upon the Trojans.”

The back-story here is that diplomatic overtures to Priam demanding that Troy become a vassal state – what today would be “option one” – followed by a ten-year military siege outside the city walls mounted by an alliance of Greek city-states – “option two” – had both failed. In the end, this trap, this “third option,” this great wooden horse, once sprung, leads quickly to the destruction of the theretofore impenetrable walled city.

These days, covert actions, especially successful ones, are rarely applauded in public, certainly not by epic poets, and more often than not remain hidden beneath the black redactions routinely used by intelligence operatives forced to make token disclosures. Instead of being admired for the central role they have played in some of the most consequential events of recent times – including, in a few instances, the life and death of governments – policymakers and practitioners in the field view this dark art as a necessary evil. This distaste, coupled with secrecy, has allowed, and in some instances forced, historians and biographers to gloss over their use or dismiss them entirely as distractions, casting them off as minor diversions from the more conventional tools of diplomatic and military power and treating them as isolated, even “rogue” events, instead of a topic worthy of independent study.

The Senate Report

On December 9, 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the Executive Summary, Findings and Conclusions of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program that was constructed following the attacks of September 11. Former CIA Directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden called it “a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney immediately concluded that “the report is full of crap.” President Obama and current CIA Director John O. Brennan both had more middling responses, cryptically and simultaneously praising the intelligence community while condemning its conduct. As many commentators have already observed, including the New York Times, this “is the most sweeping condemnation of the C.I.A. since the Church Committee” hearings, and while the consequences remain to be seen, the United States will from time to time still need a ‘third option’ to achieve critical national security objectives, just as the Trojans did.

As one might imagine – and hope – there has been reluctance even in the intelligence community to employ certain covert action methods. That was true at the start of the Cold War as well; no one wanted to get their hands dirty with covert action, but the executive branch deemed it essential as they faced an existential nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Today, the threat is not existential, and certain techniques, already abandoned due to a lack of effectiveness and disgust, must not push us so far as to limit the continuing use of covert action in the war on terror.

The Uncomfortable Need For Covert Action

Distasteful as it might be, leaders quickly turn to covert action when reality and morality collide. As former CIA Director Stansfield Turner noted, “despite its dedication to human rights and its considerable reservations about the morality of covert actions, [the Carter administration] turned easily and quickly to covert devices.” To soften the blow, we often focus on the necessity of the thing and the utter lunacy of keeping our hands clean when the costs of dirtying them are small, allowing us to disregard the pious as naïve, unrealistic and simply unsuited to the ebb and flow of violence that consumes us. Indeed, as John Le Carre wrote,

We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night…. Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things…. You can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now? … That would never do. While Le Carré’s rationale permits policymakers to authorize covert actions with fewer reservations, their success and failure is often obscured by the long arc of history, immunizing them from the full effect of their decisions.

The 1953 coup d’état of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by CIA operations officer Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, was considered a resounding success. After receiving a private briefing from Roosevelt, Winston Churchill exclaimed, “Young man, if I had been but a few years younger, I would have loved nothing better than to have served under your command in this great venture!” However, replacing Mossadegh with the Shah played a role in the 1979 Iranian revolution, installing a theocracy hostile to American interests for more than three decades.

Similarly, in 1986, CIA Director William Casey’s orders to “Go out and kill me 10,000 Soviets until they give up [and leave Afghanistan]” to operations officer Milt Bearden influenced the subsequent rise of the Taliban and ultimately provided the safe harbor Al-Qaeda needed to plan, prepare and train for terrorist attacks against the United States.

As time passes, the retrospective analysis of any covert action will likely turn most short-term successes into failures or, admittedly, expose complete failures. However, these short-term successes gobble up victims as well as victors: The democratically elected President of Guatemala, Jose Arbenz, toppled in a CIA led coup d’état in 1954 due to American fears of Soviet penetration into Latin American; CIA pilot Allen L. Pope captured by the Indonesian military in 1957 while supplying dissidents on the island of Sulawesi; Radio Free Europe correspondent Georgi Markov, assassinated by a Bulgarian intelligence officer using an umbrella gun to inject him with a fatal ricin pellet while strolling over the Waterloo bridge on his way to work at BBC headquarters in London.

Yes, this is certainly distasteful work, but when the alternative is even the remote possibility of full scale war, then, like an insurance policy, one must pay the premium because the risk, even if slight, simply cannot be tolerated. The heat leading up to the Cold War probably illustrates this best.

General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, war-time director of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to CIA, emphasized that “We can prevent a shooting war if we take the initiative to win the subversive war” following a visit to Soviet Russia in 1919. President Harry Truman echoed Wild Bill’s thoughts, writing to University of North Carolina President Gordon Gray in 1951 that “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the policy of averting a third world war may depend on the strength and effectiveness of our efforts in the field of psychological warfare.”

With the horrors of World Wars I and II fresh in the minds of many Americans, US officials felt compelled to quickly establish a covert action capability despite any moral misgivings. George Keenan, the foreign policy heavyweight who led the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, wrote on May 4, 1948 that

[T]he Kremlin’s conduct of political warfare has become the most refined and effective of any in history. We have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war…and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations – the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war…. Having assumed greater international responsibilities than ever before in our history and having been engaged by the full might of the Kremlin’s political warfare, we cannot afford to leave unmobilized our resources for covert political warfare.

Lieutenant General James Doolittle wholeheartedly agreed with Keenan, stressing to President Eisenhower in 1954 that the United States simply had no choice but to engage in this distasteful endeavor:

Because the United States is relatively new at the game, and because we are opposed by a police state enemy…another important requirement is an aggressive covert psychological, political and paramilitary organization more effective, more unique and, if necessary, more ruthless than that employed by the enemy…. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conflict do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair-play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

Keenan and Doolittle’s concerns reflected much of the American national security establishment: the conflict with the USSR constituted an existential threat to the United States, and thus no technique, even if uncivilized, even if downright immoral, could be spared. America needed fine men and women, willing to do evil in the name of good. However, finding ‘fine’ men was not easy.

Reporting to the Chief of the Western Hemisphere Division on August 29, 1953, CIA’s Chief of Station in Guatemala stated that they could not use a local Reuters correspondent as an operative: “He is an American citizen, but completely untrustworthy, not from an ideological point of view but for the reason that he cannot keep his mouth shut and sometimes drinks very heavily and becomes involved in brawls. The same can be said for the Associated Press correspondent.”

No One Wants To Do It

But despite the extraordinary need for covert action, no one wanted to do the dirty work. Writing to Robert Lovet, the Assistant Secretary of War for Air in October 1945, Brigadier General John MaGruder argued against establishing a covert action force within the military:

Clandestine intelligence operations involve a constant breaking of all the rules of correct procedure according to which the regular government departments must operate. To put it baldly, such operations are necessarily extra-legal and sometimes illegal. No regular government department, be it War, State or Navy, can afford to house such operations within itself or otherwise identify itself with them. Independence of association with them is therefore essential.

Like the War Department, CIA resisted the formation of a covert action capability within its ranks. Sometimes, other agencies even resisted helping CIA accomplish its “sub rosa” dirty work. However, there was an even more fundamental, albeit self-inflicted obstacle to these personal reservations: the National Security Act of 1947 did not authorize covert action.

When asked whether CIA could legally possess a covert action capability, General Counsel Lawrence Houston wrote to Director Roscoe Hillenkoetter on September 25, 1947 that “We do not believe that there was any thought in the minds of Congress that the Central Intelligence Agency under this authority would take positive action for subversion and sabotage.”

Notwithstanding Houston’s misgivings, and CIA’s resistance, the National Security Council soon exploited a legal loop-hole large enough to accommodate anything from small propaganda operations to coup d’états and paramilitary intervention.

Simply put, the law had a catch-all provision, authorizing CIA to perform “such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” With this, the National Security Council, “taking cognizance of the vicious covert activities of the USSR…determined that, in the interests of world peace and US national security, the overt foreign activities of the US Government must be supplemented by covert operations.” CIA continued to resist, but by the 1950s covert action consumed nearly half its budget.

Purists, especially intelligence officers and covert action operators, will frequently find themselves compelled to explain that espionage and covert action are distinct professions that just happen to share a common requirement for success: Secrecy. Housing them within the same bureaucratic edifice was not necessary, it was merely convenient given that CIA had a penchant for secrecy and a work force suited to dangerous missions. Arguably, the National Security Act’s catch-all authority did not even authorize “covert action” as one could argue it was not, as the Act required, “related to intelligence.” No matter – that distinction was not raised.

Perhaps reflecting the ethical unease with which many approach this dark art, the field of covert action is further obscured by euphemisms. The British called it a “Special Political Activity.” Under the Carter and Reagan administrations it was referred to as “Special Activities,” and to this day the CIA unit responsible for covert actions is the “Special Activities Division.”

According to former CIA Director Richard Helms, the term ‘covert action’ was never even used by the Office of Strategic Services, instead it “slipped into the CIA intelligence lexicon sometime after the agency was established in 1947.”

The Cold War was undoubtedly a golden age of covert action, used routinely by the KGB and CIA in a clandestine war that shaped the twentieth century with effects felt to this day. Eventually, CIA reveled in its covert action role. According to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 1956, “The CIA, busy, monied and privileged, likes its ‘King Making’ responsibility (the intrigue is fascinating – considerable self satisfaction, sometimes with applause, derives from ‘successes’ – no charge is made for ‘failures’ – and the whole business is very much simpler than collecting covert intelligence on the USSR through the usual CIA methods!).”

But following the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 – arguably the worst covert action in history – and the revelations of CIA’s “family jewels” during the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s, disclosing, among other interesting factoids, CIA’s development of a poison dart gun, covert action fell out of favor.

It Ebbs and Flows

CIA’s Special Activities Division, once home to the rising stars of the intelligence community, was thoroughly demoralized. According to CIA Deputy Director Frank Carlucci, “the CIA covert action capability was moribund” due to legislation following the Church Committee hearings.

By 1982 a popular poster decorated the offices of CIA’s Central American Task Force: “Six phases of a U.S. Government Sponsored Covert Action: Enthusiasm – Disillusionment – Panic – Search for the Guilty – Punishment of the Innocent – Praise and Honor for the Nonparticipants.” Even more clearly put, former CIA Director Robert Gates wrote in his memoirs, “Covert action rarely has been career enhancing in [the] clandestine service.”

Eventually, some even prophesized that given the longstanding distaste for covert action, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the technique would succumb to history, overtaken by peace, and relegated to a burn-bag reserved for the destruction of classified information. According to one scholar, “Covert action will probably never again be considered as a routine foreign policy tool.”

The prophets were wrong and the attacks of September 11, 2001 resurrected covert action from the career stalling way-station it had become since the Church Committee to the best place to fight terrorists and rise up the chain of command. Vice President Dick Cheney quickly warned “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows. We have to work toward the dark side, if you will.”

Today, this dark side has spread beyond Langley. Recent press disclosures identified the first known instance of a covert action by computer, using a virus to infect Iranian centrifuges so that they spin imperceptibly faster, destroying them in the process and leaving Tehran perplexed as to the cause. In addition, U.S. Special Forces are playing a role in certain operations that are arguably covert, eschewing General MaGruder’s reservations about participating in the ‘dark art’.

Despite the failures and the successes, the victims and the victors, the ancient and the modern, the celebrated and the secret, the fatal and the deceptive, covert action has played an important role in U.S. national security. The release of the Senate report has already provided the public with additional information that has led to widespread condemnation of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Past and present intelligence community leaders have already begun waging a public campaign to ensure that their recollections are part of this ongoing debate. Hopefully, the origins of America’s covert action capability will provide some context for that discussion.

The Author

Michael Richter is an attorney at Joseph Hage Aaronson, a boutique litigation shop based in New York City that focuses on complex commercial litigation. He is also the Chairman of the Military and Justice Affairs Committee at the New York City Bar Association.”

Article picture: brianneises via Pixabay. Picture no. 2 Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid Source: Wikipedia


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