How Overt Are Covert Operations?

The lead story in the New York Times trumpets President Bush’s approval of “a secret effort” to fund the Taliban’s opponents in Afghanistan. The headline: “BUSH APPROVES COVERT AID FOR TALIBAN FOES.” Explainer wonders what’s so covert about a plan that’s leaked to the New York Times. What does it mean for government activity to be “covert”?

Executive order 12333, signed by President Reagan in 1981, defines covert action as “special activities,” meaning “activities conducted in support of national foreign policy objectives abroad which are planned and executed so that the role of the United States Government is not apparent or acknowledged publicly … but which are not intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media and do not include diplomatic activities or the collection and production of intelligence or related support functions.” (Special activities differ from special operations.) Special activities are carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (or, during wartime, the armed forces) unless the president determines that a different agency is more likely to achieve the secret objective.

The CIA’s Factbook on Intelligence states that only the president can direct the CIA to undertake a covert action, usually at the recommendation of the National Security Council. According to the fact book, the NSC recommends a covert action when “foreign policy objectives may not be fully realized by normal diplomatic means and when military action is deemed to be too extreme an option.”

The CIA’s director of central intelligence is required to notify the congressional intelligence oversight committees when the president recommends a covert action. Undertaking a covert action also requires a “finding,” a document that spells out the scope and justification of the action. That document is supposed to be transmitted to Congress in a timely manner–generally understood to be within 48 hours or so. (Explainer discussed congressional oversight of intelligence information a couple weeks ago.)

Covert actions differ from clandestine actions such as military invasions that are announced publicly soon after the fact. Covert actions require unusual secrecy, and they may or may not become public. National security information is automatically declassified after 25 years in accordance with President Clinton’s executive order 12958, but there are nine exceptions to that rule. Exempt categories include information about 1) intelligence sources and methods; 2) weapons of mass destruction; 3) U.S. cryptologic systems; 4) state-of-the-art weapons technology; and 5) military war plans that remain in effect. Other exempt categories include information that would demonstrably impair 6) U.S. relations with a foreign government; 7) the ability of the government to protect the president, vice president, or other officials; and 8) current national security emergency preparedness plans. The ninth exemption is for information that would violate a statute, treaty, or international agreement.

Why would the United States undertake a covert action? Because the president believes that it would be contrary to American interests if U.S. sponsorship of the operation were known. And why wouldn’t the United States want its fingerprints on that operation? One reason could be the desire to change a foreign government’s policies without undermining that government by making it appear to be backing down under U.S. pressure. Another reason could be to protect an intelligence source who might be fingered if the United States came to the source’s defense in an obvious way. And remember, a covert action is not necessarily a paramilitary operation. Covert actions can include propaganda campaigns or funding opposition forces such as Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance.

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Explainer thanks Robert Turner of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia; Scott Silliman of the Duke Center of Law, Ethics, and National Security; Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists; and CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher.