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The Trouble With
‘Covert’ Action

By Lee H. Hamilton

August 17, 1986


Savimbi, the leader of a group of rebels seeking to overthrow the Angolan
government, was received at the White House. Administration officials,
including the president and members of the Cabinet, publicly pledged support
for his group, UNITA, and have since revealed details about the weaponry that
the United States is apparently providing.

This dramatic shift in
U.S. policy has proven controversial. But remarkably, Congress and the public
have been constrained from openly debating its merits. That’s because the aid
to Savimbi is deemed “covert” and, as such, is not subject to
approval or even scrutiny by the whole Congress. Angola, more than any recent
case, illustrates the tensions between “covert” operations and the
principles of open, democratic government.

What is
“covert” action? In simple terms, it is a clandestine effort
undertaken to shape events in a manner favorable to U.S. foreign policy
interests. It includes a range of activities: unattributable propaganda, the
provision of financial or material support to individuals, groups and foreign
governments, or military operations.

The rationale for covert
action is that it increases the number of foreign policy options available to
the President and enables the United States to influence events in situations
where no public role would be possible or productive. Because it is
unattributable, a covert action can help the U.S. support friendly nations or
their policies without exposing them to the criticism that they are pawns of
the United States. Covert action can sometimes provide a middle ground between
diplomacy and war. It can also help the United States avoid confrontation that
might result if its role were officially acknowledged. For these reasons, many
covert actions can and should be supported.

But covert action should
be viewed skeptically. The U.S. government should not carry out any covert
action that a fully-informed American public would not support. While
occasionally necessary, it should not be the preferred tool of foreign policy.
Particularly close scrutiny should be give to paramilitary or military covert
actions. It is hard to keep them secret or sustain their public support, and
their mode of operation makes accountability virtually impossible.

By law, the president can
initiate a covert action unilaterally. The president is only required to make a
determination (a “finding”) that a certain covert action is in the
national interest, and to notify the House and Senate Intelligence committees
of the finding. The committees review the finding in secret and support most
plans for covert action. However, they do not have legal authority to stop a
covert action if they disagree. Their only recourse is to urge the president to
reconsider. Congress can block a covert action only by the enactment of a
specific restriction on the availability of funds.

I believe there are four
specific problems with covert actions, especially those in support of military
or paramilitary operations.

First, while covert
actions can have benefits, they often entail significant risks. Exposed covert
operations can result in considerable embarrassment to the United States, a
setback in relations with other counties and the loss of life. Public exposure
of covert actions can also jeopardize U.S. intelligence collection

Large-scale military
covert actions run especially large risks. They develop a momentum of their
own. They have a tendency to get out of control, and they simply cannot be kept
secret. Extensive warfare generates intensive media investigation about who is
backing whom, and recipients of aid soon boast about U.S. assistance. Those who
oppose a covert action leak to undercut policy; the who support policy leak to
convince their followers that the President is waging the good fight against
communism. Nicaragua and Angola are prime examples of the near-impossibility of
keeping a military covert action secret.

Another risk relates to
the growing number of covert operations and their escalating costs in recent
years. Those in the administration who favor covert actions should not forget
that there is great residual suspicion in the public and the Congress about
their usefulness, and that members are paying increasing attention to the size
of the CIA’s contingency reserve fund.

Second, covert actions
consume an inordinate amount of time of the intelligence community and divert
it from the performance of its chief function: the dispassionate collection and
analysis of intelligence. The time devoted to hearings and oversight by the
Intelligence committees is mirrored by the amount of time spent by the
administration defending and managing covert operations. This detracts the
director of central intelligence and other executive branch officials from
supervising intelligence collection and analysis. It also detracts from proper
oversight by the Congress of these same activities.

A third problem with
covert action is that it is too easy to initiate, requires the review of only a
very few people in the executive branch, and tempts policymakers to use it as a
convenient tool to change policy without the approval of Congress. This is a
mistake. Covert action is a necessarily secret means of implementing policy; it
should not be a means to change policy in secret. When a covert action runs
contrary to the well-understood and publicly-enunciated policy of the United
States, it runs the risk of Congressional opposition, a cut-off of funding and
a major foreign policy fistfight between the executive and legislative
branches. Covert action should not be used to impose a foreign policy the
American people would not ordinarly support.

This problem is
especially serious in the case of large-scale military operations. Today the
administration is seeking to combat communist and communist-supported
governments around the world, and military covert action is the cutting edge of
policy. The president can fund a war secretly, without public debate, deepening
U.S. involvement in what the administration calls “low-intensity”
wars. Yet the power of the purse and the power to declare war are enumerated
powers of Congress in the Constitution.

In cases like Angola, the
president is trying to have it both ways. If an operation is secret, then why
do officials from the president down talk about it openly, and why does he meet
with UNITA’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, in the White House? The chief advantage of
“secrecy” in this instance is to enable the administration to
circumvent congressional and public debate of a major change in U.S. foreign
policy, one that important implications for U.S. policy throughout southern
Africa because of Savimbi’s close ties with the South African government.

A fourth problem with
covert action can be seen in the administration’s handling of the Nicaragua
issue this year. The administration made its case for assistance to the Contras
publicly, but now intends to manage and implement this assistance as a covert
action, with all that entails.

No program once out in
the public view can realistically be put under wraps again. A hybrid
overt-covert program may enable the Executive to get around its immediate
political problems in Washington or in Honduras, but it defies logic. Under
these circumstances the Intelligence Committees are forced to perform their
ovesight of the Contra program in secret, even though the American public knows
the program exists and expects public accountability for it. This arrangement
is incompatible with our system of government.

Each of the problems with
covert action listed above contributes to a reluctant conclusion that the congressional
review process needs improvement. At present, the Intelligence committees only
sit and listen as the administration outlines a finding and initiates a
program. They are unable to block the initiation of a program, and are able to
shape policy only to the extent the president accepts their advice. Committee
rules make it extremely difficult to conduct public discussion of covert
action, and Committee members are limited in their oversight function when they
cannot appeal to the judgment of their colleagues or the public at large. The
policy process is not working well when the Congress can only attempt to block
wayward covert actions after the fact, after U.S. prestige and people’s lives
have already have committed.

These problems could be
overcome by a greater respect in the administration for Congress’s role in
reviewing covert actions. The need for accountability is acute today because of
the growing prominence of paramilitary and military covert action in U.S.
foreign policy. The review process can work better provided the executive
branch and the Congress understand it and use it with civility, prudence and

Lee H. Hamilton is
chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and ranking
Democrat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Chris Kojm, a Foreign Affairs
Committee aide, assisted in the preparation of this article.

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