Covert Operations Explained

Covert operations provide policymakers an option to achieve objectives when the use of direct military operations is undesirable. But they are not foolproof.


Many covert operations fail to accomplish their goals, sullying the reputation of both the CIA and the American people. The most serious failures, such as the Bay of Pigs intervention and the CIA support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, can cause permanent damage.


Covert operations allow policymakers to pursue objectives in situations when the use of direct military action is inappropriate or counterproductive. They also give governments an opportunity to avoid provoking a response by their adversaries, or they can offer enough ambiguity to constrain a target state from climbing up the escalation ladder.

Although these advantages are compelling, they come with a cost. Because covert actions must be planned and carried out in secret, they are subject to less vetting in advance, which means that the risks involved are higher and their consequences more unpredictable. They also require more flexibility and impose the need to delegate authority to local actors, who may have their own agendas.

As a result, these operations often lack a coherent logic and are not designed to achieve a single, specific goal. In addition, they can generate significant diplomatic fallout. Covert operations can be used to influence the political and economic climate of a country, but they are most useful when employed as an integral component of a larger strategy that seeks to alter or replace a regime’s underlying dynamics.

During the Cold War, for example, William Casey sought to support religious dissidents in order to undermine the Soviet Union’s ideological monopoly on religion. His efforts were a key part of an American policy that aimed to undermine the Soviet economic and political system through indirect measures while simultaneously building a regional alliance to confront a potential Soviet expansion.


Covert action is a complex process, but if done correctly it can manipulate international events without either Americans or foreign targets knowing who initiated the change. While many people outside of the CIA would never understand the specifics of covert action, they would recognize the phases and steps used by anyone who plans an illicit activity.

One of the most important parts of planning a covert operation is to determine what type of target you are trying to gather information on. For example, a terrorist or criminal organization will not want to be known as the ones behind an attack on their homeland, and you should be able to gather enough information to allow for plausible deniability.

The second part of the planning stage is to create a cover story. This is the linchpin of the whole operation and it will determine whether your cover will hold up under scrutiny. If your cover is blown, all your efforts will be for nothing and the success of your operation will not only be compromised, but the lives of those involved will be in jeopardy.

As you can imagine, creating a cover story that will withstand scrutiny is not easy. This is why it is so important that the planners work closely with the analysts to ensure that their objectives are realistic and that they will be successful. Unfortunately, separating covert operations from clandestine collection severely hampers this collaboration.


Unlike open diplomacy, which involves announcing one’s intentions to the target state and its public, covert action takes place in secret. It may rely on open means such as the threat of force or direct intervention by a friendly state, but the overall purpose of covert action is to influence international events without making a public show of it.

In peacetime, non-violent covert operations seek to disaffect a government by creating distrust among its people or to steer its decision-making via placing agents in key positions within the target country. Violent covert operations involve more dramatic action, including sabotage and assassination. In either case, in order to limit political fallout should the operation go awry, it should be conducted with ‘plausible deniability’: the head of the attacking power should be able to claim that they did not authorise or know about the operation.

This requires careful tradecraft, especially in a time of increasing transparency and global communications. But even if the tradecraft is flawless, the shape of an individual covert operation is ultimately dictated by policy. The wailing and gnashing of teeth that characterised Cold War movies and other depictions of nations stung by blowback are not necessarily a sign that the operations were ill-advised or didn’t achieve their aims; rather they reflect the fact that politics – and thus policies and operations – have changed significantly since the bare-knuckled height of the US-Soviet great game.


The implementation phases of covert operations involve executing the plan. This is done through the exploitation of covert assets or by direct action by CIA personnel.

This phase of covert operations usually involves a significant risk and requires a great deal of planning. It also often requires the cooperation of friendly intelligence agencies and military services.

Despite the risks of covert action, there is little debate that it can be an effective tool of policy. Covert actions can be used in conjunction with other tools of policy to achieve specific goals, such as influencing political systems or providing support to rebels against foreign governments.

The problem with the current system of oversight is that it is a delicate balancing act between the need for national security and the potential for abuse. The first step must be to look for reforms that could increase national security without increasing the danger of abuse.

For example, Congress should be able to prevent the President from carrying out a covert operation by putting pressure on him through committee hearings and the threat of cutting off next year’s funding. This would force the President to take his responsibilities seriously rather than simply looking at the letter of the law. This would help to ensure that the law is actually a weapon of policy, rather than an instrument of abuse.