Covert Action,A Necessary Evil

Covert Action,A Necessary Evil

Student’s Name


Covert Action A Necessary Evil

While instances of violent attacks are prevalent across the globe, many cases of covert actions are a nuisance whereas some are justifiablewithin a given social set up. Covert action is an executed plan by a sponsoring government which primarily aims at influencing or manipulating people, foreign governments and even events in order to garner support to the foreign policy objectives while concealing the identity of the organizers. The major intention is usually to generate a political atmosphere that has great influence on a country’s military, economy or even intelligence.  This paper therefore aims at discussing some of the necessity of covert action in a world where cases of terrorism are awash while taking into consideration the negative influences it may have when the right purposes for which it is intended are not attained (Perlroth, 2014).

Every nation has a recognized body concerned with all the activities of the covert actions. In the US in particular, the organ charged with principal activities of covert actions abroad is the CIA. The CIA has three chore objectives. These include: gathering information regarding foreign governments or individuals, analyzing information received to determine the accuracy. This is frequently carried out in order to issue an assessment to senior policymakers. Finally, it is charged with the mandate of exerting foreign political influence through numerous premeditated divisions.

There are a battery of the nature and type of Covert Actions; however, the most notable ones are the Clandestine and the Black Operations.Conversely, Clandestine and Covert Action are treated as two separate entities given the dimensions taken by both during the process they are carried out. In clandestine collection, the activity is kept secret, while in covert action, the sponsorship is kept secret. The US has its own system of instigating covert action. Such covert actions can be grouped into three categories which include: propaganda, political acts accomplishments and even paramilitary actions.

Although the use of Covert Action has been met with a lot of criticism within the 21st Century, launching of such operations is necessary as a prevention measure towards elements of aggressions and terrorism attacks in the world. Initially when Covert Action was being launched, concerns resurfaced in America with respect to the massive investments allocated to the project and whether it was in tandem with the provisions of the laws of the international community.

Against this back drop, it is imperative to point out that not every occurrence of Covert Action is an insinuation of violence. Many cases of Covert Actions take different forms such as in the case where a particular government would wish to create changes in the political systems of another government. The government intending to impose its policies may secretly try to fund a stronger political party, usually the opposition so that elections of that country are influenced towards a direction of interest. During the process of conducting a Covert Action, the operation is often done in a way that it does not portray any association with the government conducting such operations (Perlroth, 2014).

Covert action has often been used by the US as a vital tool to monitor foreign policy ever since the beginning of World War1. When Cold War began, the United States covert actions were specifically conducted by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). The CIA is charged with the mandate of: offering subsidies to individuals who are engaged in spying, tendering political advice to those friendly nations and availing financial aid to the favored groups besides helping in carrying out the process of covert actions. Other responsibilities include issuing a paramilitary operation destined to overthrow a particular regime which is often seen as dictatorial.

It is again important to take into consideration that many a times; the US government has often encouraged Covert Action not simply because it is in the best of her interest to orchestrate acts of violence but rather because it does not encourage totalitarian or dictatorial form of government in any part of the world. Since it is a global player in international peace as a superpower, her well intentioned position in world politics in overthrowing authoritarian regime does not auger well with every other aggressive nation. For example, when the Bush administration launched a covert action against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, such actions were met with a lot of resentments as the US was seen as an intruder in world politics. The truth of the matter is, covert action is time bound as long as political aggressions in the world continue to take centre stage (Coll, 2004).

Covert actions are not necessarily associated with the US alone, when the United States was launching an attack on Taliban and the Al Qaeda fighters, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf gave a direction to the US and the world at large that any unilateral attacks on Palestinian borders would be tantamount to invasion. This statement appears to be true even though the United States denied such allegations terming it a sorry statement far from the truth. This denial proved plausible (Stempel, 2007).

Necessity of Covert Actions

Covert action remains one of the greatest instruments for US and other friendly nations who are committed to fighting terrorism. The history of the initiation of the covert action can be traced back to the beginning of Cold War. Historically, it was adopted by the United States on a wide scale in a bid to combat the threat of Soviet hegemony in the world.In order to defend a nation’s constitution, application of correct forms of Covert Actions is necessary. A case study of application of the United States adoption of covert action was the 1954 limitation of Soviet’s influence in Guatemala where her government (Guatemala) went through an organized coup but that which later had serious consequences to the democracy of the citizens of Guatemala as they have undergone multiple coups and political instability since the incidence (Mumford, 2013).

Some Covert Actions are important to a country’s defense of sovereign rights. For instance the insurgences of the international terrorist organizations have posed a threat to the peace and democracy of nations and the US in particular is a victim of such threats. Many victims of the 9/11 US attack concur rather regrettably that had the US increased her secret intelligence operations in Afghanistan given the number of signals alerted to her by the latter, the bombing would not have occurred. It therefore goes without say that some forms of Covert Actions cannot be undermined as far as security of a nation is concerned. Under this concern, undertakings of Covert Actions should be designed with a prudent doctrine and in such a way that respect for human rights is upheld.

Covert action is most significant in the process of retaliation of an attack from external forces. The US for instance applied this technique during Afghanistan’s attack where efficient intelligence network was necessary in fighting criminal activities and to map positions via GPS which ensured easy location of the military groups and to offer other logistical support in order to ensure victory against the opponents.

In 1972 the Watergate scandal was one of the remarked political scandals in the US where President Nixon tried to make a cover up of the situation to no avail. This involved an series of illegal activities undertaken by the incumbent government which included harassment of activist groups by President Nixon’s administration as well tainting a negative image of political opponents. Through various investigations majorly conducted via Espionage, other scandals showing serious abuse of power were unveiled thereby leading to resignation of President Nixon through numerous articles of impeachments. Such a measure, although unfortunate in the public domain, was significant to the US government especially because a sitting US president is required by law to maintain integrity while serving in office. This also shows that it is impossible to talk about Covert Action in single-file without mentioning espionage since the two operate almost in the same mode.


With the advent of information technology, espionage has taken on a new look. Cyber espionage as a case in point has become a threat to national security. America has been on the receiving end of cyber espionage by Chinese hackers. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security suffered an infiltration into its systems by an unknown number of programs that sent information to a website of Chinese origin. The amount of information that was sent to that website still remains unknown. The World Bank, NASA, military labs and others were the victims of a cyber-espionage ring called Titan Rain, which stole massive amounts of government data. The East Asia Bureau, the presidential campaigns of McCain and Obama, and the Naval War College have also been targeted by Chinese hackers. They have also targeted Tibetan institutions like the Dalai Lama’s private office. Two cyber espionage campaigns known for such activities are Shadow Network and Ghostnet, as the Information Warfare Monitor calls them. When covert actions against such criminal activities are launched, it is possible to minimize their encroachment because of fear of detection (Melnitzky, 2012).

The US Department of Defense also suffered significantly when classified military computer networks were infiltrated in 2008. A military laptop was infected with a bug after an infected flash drive was inserted into it at a Middle Eastern base. From this computer, the infectious code was transferred onto systems that were both unclassified and classified. A digital beachhead was thus established from which foreign countries could access the data in these systems. One instance of particular interest was the direct threat posed by Chinese hackers who stole data from an F-35 fighter plane that was being designed by Lockheed martin. The data stolen was worth several terabytes. Under such circumstances, covert actions are crucial not actually to create tension and instability in the world but in order to curb such malpractices (Melnitzky2012).

It is said that China’s hacking against other countries’ industries does not have a precedent in the whole history of espionage. As China strives to develop a modern economy, she uses cyber espionage because of its cheapness compared to mainstream research and development. Interestingly, China does not only involve herself in cyber espionage but also in such activities that would be preemptive of an offensive cyber war. Such activities have been going on from the late 1990s (Melnitzky, 2012).

There are also groups of hackers that perform espionage on demand. They target government agency networks and private corporations as they search for political, military and industrial secrets. This is what has been discovered by Symantec and Kaspersky Lab. There is one group code-named Icefog, which has been operating since 2011 and has infiltrated computer systems in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Europe and South Korea. Their targets are estimated to be in the hundreds and include government agencies and companies. They are responsible for attacking the Japanese House of Councillors and the House of Representative in 2011. In its wake, telecom operators, defense contractors, shipbuilding companies and media firms have also been targeted. Contrary to the behavior of other groups which have compromised a network, Icefog does not try to maintain its presence in the network as long as possible, but hacks in, steals data and then quickly cleans up its act. This is like a hit-and-run tactic (Lemos, 2013).

Espionage groups have been given the name advanced persistent threat, and they are evolving. One of the strategies they use is the hit and run, like the Icefog group mentioned above. However, this is not the only strategy of compromising targets and stealing data. Another group that has been studied by Symantec is the so called Hidden Lynx, which seems to contract spies and steal information based on the needs of its clients. What has been observed from these two groups is that their techniques are maturing since they use various tactics to compromise networks. For example, they focus on the suppliers of their targets as a way of compromising targeted systems. It is expected that such groups will grow in number in the future (Lemos, 2013).

Russia is not to be left behind in the game of cyber espionage. Accordingly, a hacking group named the Energetic Bear was implicated in the attack of 23 countries, mostly Western energy companies. There were also other targets in its wake, including research institutes, universities in America, Europe and Asia, defense contractors and governments in Europe, American health providers and Middle Eastern manufacturing and construction companies (Perlroth, 2014).


Also known as counterintelligence, this might be described as the act of preventing or thwarting espionage, gathering of intelligence or sabotage by an enemyor another foreign entity. For this reason, many countries have established counterintelligence agencies. Counterespionage can work against a sponsoring government as well as the entities against which the government has enlisted the services of the counterintelligence agency. An example of how this works can be seen in Vichy France. According to Kitson and Tihanyi (2008), counterespionage is not limited to enemy espionage crackdown, but should go as far as preventing leaks and counteracting propaganda. Thus, with reference to this regime, counterespionage could not be done as a single entity, but had to go hand in hand with the promotion of a national feeling among the French, and surveillance of activities that were considered to be antinational. This last aspect was done in collaboration with the police. The Vichy government used a secret propaganda campaign to pass instructions to the French regarding how they should behave in front of the German occupancy. An officer was assigned the threefold mission, and to ensure his success, he would work with a network of secret agents.

The United States intelligence group that is concerned with all sorts of covert actions has had a major role in ensuring stability of America after the Cold War by promoting US interest abroad without trying to meddle into affairs of foreign governments. Immediately after the Cold war era, the vital role of covert action was rendered less significant foreign policy especially because the US was undergoing a moment of peace and tranquility abroad and within the 50 states. However, the 9/11 attack mainly brought it (Covert Action) to the forefront as a tool to fight war on terror. During the period of Cold War and even after, the US used covert action as a diplomacy measure and an option to military aggressiveness (Kornbluh, 2003).

A covert action can be used in favor of a nation by ensuring peace and development of nations involved. The US and the British have been supporting other foreign nations without necessarilyany traces of involvement internal affairs unless situations call for such measures as in the case of Afghanistan.In addition, covert actions often aid in realizing ends which are disproportionate to costs by averting wars which help in curtailing loss of lives and investments.

In 1960, the United States also became involved in coup attempt against Iraqi government. During that time, Iraq was under the leadership of authoritarian Prime Minister Abdal al-KarimQasim. The Iraq government was best described through the manner in which she infringed on the rights of the citizens and featuring in the limelight in organizing terrorism attacks. The information on the Iraqi threat to invade Kuwait was a result of the US well advanced embracing of covert actions under which she monitored every attempts of the Iraq in conducting aggressive operations.

The United States was particularly concerned with the growing communist influence of the Iraqi government. The United States under CIA launched a special operation which ended with sending of a poisonous handkerchief to Qassim. This operation almost coincided with an outbreak of war between Iraq and Britain. Qassim, however, died of attacks later because of the Baghdad firing squad. Under this elaboration, it can be concluded that covert action is important weapon of defense when properly utilized. The United States in particular has used it as a platform to protect her citizens and other friendly nations against unnecessary upheavals.

Covert action during the Cold War era was purely justified because of the long term threat of democracy that the communists posed to the United States and other non-communists’ states as result of spreading their influence. During the Cuban Missile Crises, many peace keeping bodies realized the danger of letting the Soviet and other communist nations spread their wings of communism. The Cuban missile crisis involved the Soviet Union and Cuba versus the United States on the other side. This particular crisis puzzled the whole world as it was one of the fiercest battles in the history of the world. Historians opine that this Cold War crisis almost turned into a nuclear weapon conflict.

Throughout the history of the United States and other nations having common interest in maintaining security in the world, there have been great concerns over the emergence of a dizzyingly mutable world where consistency has been the palpable exception. The new era of the aftermath of the Cold War demands an absolute approach of influence in approaching and defining the relevance of the covert action and the propriety in this dynamic age. The attainable significance must be reweighed in order to stay relevant in this turbulent era where aggressions and terrorism acts are the order of the day. Making attempts to have influence on other nations’ affairs can be partly viewed as a natural process of exercising diplomacy when adopted under the right context (Pace, 2002).

In as much as the urgency to fully legalize covert actions remains a subject of debate, getting rid of it is detrimental to the current political states of many nations in the world. It is only the nature of the covert actions which would channel such subject of debate to perhaps a disorienting collection of fiery rhetoric. Within the center of every dramatic discourse often lies the fundamental question of the compatibility of covert actions with the moral tenets of every state’s democracy. Covert action campaigns are also usually carried out where there could be a public interference which would compromise the mission. An appropriate example is the secret assistance of the Colombian forces by the US as a way of maintaining peace in such region. The secret assistance gets its funding from the multi investments from the black budget and includes techniques such as eavesdropping (Bagley, 2007).

Currently, president Obama has been involved with covert actions in Libya with an aim of ensuring political stability in the war-torn region. Such covert actions have come in handy due to the prevailing political instability in Libya. This therefore supports the notion that some covert actions are not necessarily evil.

Covert actions are also justifiable when teleological considerations are reflected upon. Many nations that are engaged in elements of covert actions including the US normally factor in the pros and cons of engaging in any form of covert actions or military force. America for instance has usually made it a routine to outweigh the option of employing covert actions such as the one leading to overthrowing a foreign government if they do lead to massive loss of life (Roadnight, 2002).

Negative implications of covert action

With the demise of Cold War and the intense competition with the Soviet Union as an archenemy of the US, covert action has now lost much of its appeal as a legal foreign policy tool for the US and other nations such as the UK who have implemented it for decades as means of spying over their enemies’ influence. Firstly, although the US has played its cards well to ensure international security and peace in the world, some of its approaches to launching peace initiatives vis-a-vis covert action are questionable. Even American citizens have themselves become disenchanted with the manner in which the CIA has been intervening in international affairs. The US has lost respect as a result of imposing policies and using military force to punish her enemies hence this has been viewed as a way of encouraging terror activities because aggressive nations in the Middle East have continued to develop anti American sentiments (Stempel, 2007).

In line with the laws that govern every nation, covert actions are serious criminal offences. The process through which covert actions are carried out after approval by the sponsoring government is litmus for testing the limit of democracy in such nations. It is then not a surprise that while some of the pundits may accept the use of covert action to solve any situation in a democratic world, the governments sponsoring such actions are walking under the bridge of dictatorship by acting as imposters.

Looking at covert action through the lens of state of conflict, inappropriate taming of any form of covert action can always lead to loss of lives. The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan to counterattack the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist group is a perfect caricature of the repercussions of incorrect use of covert actions to achieve unjust means during a civil war. Many innocent civilians died in the process of military raids and bombings. This act of vengeance against the innocent civilians portrayed the United States as anti-democracy as this was against the inherent values of peace keeping and her commitment in maintaining international law (Bergen, 2001).

A part from that, if it is undertaken without seeking prior the consent of the Congress, it causes undermining of the spirit of the constitution and the checks and balances within the provision of the same constitution.

Owing to the advancement in technological applications in matters security, covert action will nolonger remain secret within the social or political milieu hence their principal of low risk and lost cost mechanisms will never be realistic. Covert actions are subject to public scrutiny since some of the first world nations surreptitiously impose their influence in foreign developments without the approval of such foreign governments. This is sometimes contrary to the demands and interests of such governments (Johnson, 2006).

At the moment, it remains absurd that the same capabilities and muscles the United States and other major world powers used to wage war during the Cold War against communist nations such as against Russia have been largely used in fighting the third world nations. Just after the end of the Cold War, the United States has by and large used the concept of covert actions to put sanctions on nations that are sometimes noncompliant to their demands.

The CIA and other foreign bodies carrying out covert actions have been criticized over what has been widely termed as the adoption of inappropriate rendition. This was majorly common under the administration of President George W. Bush whose government abducted and tried several suspected groups of terrorists as part of interrogation and a step to curbing terrorism. The Bush administration admitted to freely using force and torturing abducted persons. This shows the extent to which inappropriate use of covert actions often conflicts the principal of providingsecurity to everyone. Transferring the abducted to foreign nations that practice torture contradicts the principle underwhich the covert action was formed. During the Bush administration, the detainees were regularly tortured with the knowledge and participation of the United States agencies.

Surprisingly, most of the captured and tortured individuals were sometimes later found to be very innocent. The US has incessantly used rendition as a tool to the US led war on terror in a bid to deal with foreign defendants while ignoring the procedures of extradition and rendition in the realm of international law. Rendition processes are however still being used. For example, the US is currently employing rendition in a different style. Once suspects are caught, they are taken into American custody and later released to a third party state which carries out the sentencing without necessarily letting the abducted touch American soil.

Critics have viewed this process as a scheme by the United States to escape laws which mandate due process in trying suspects and bars torture and other dehumanizing practices.

Far from that, nations practicing covert actions have been victims of target killings. As a result of achieving their interests, most of the military giant nations have been consistently criticized over their ambitions to plot murder and other forms of predetermined killings of an individual or groups of individuals without applying judicial procedures. Targeted killings were majorly applied in main parts of Third World countries in the past such as Haiti, Somalia and even Rwanda. Currently, such militarily advantaged nations such as the US, Israel, and the UK employ semipublic extrajudicial killings to targets those termed as rogues such as the death of Osama Bin Laden (Stephen, 2006).

In Israel, the use of target killing was common place during the ever raging war between Israel and Palestine. The Israeli military used such a scheme to literally kill the Palestinian adversaries. The legitimacy of killing targeted groups has raised concerns. Although some of the military personnel and scholars are of the opinion that target killings are sometimes justified under certain conditions, when used specifically for self-defenseand when used against terrorists and combatants who are involved in asymmetrical warfare (Bender, 2006).

In conclusion, in as much as the subject of covert actions is widely contested, its relevance as a dangerous yet important tool in fighting terrorisms is not questionable. It has aided in prevention of otheractivities such as those thatcause insecurity and strain in international relationships and therefore cannot be overlooked, as long society is struggling to be at the peak of international peace and security. One important factor to be considered is a thorough concentration of the inner working of nations practicing covert action such as the United States and their capability in creating a balance of benefit from foreign policy opportunities. Worth appreciating also is the fact that many nations have made it a priority to adopt covert actions for the benefit of all humanity. The sensitivity with which covert actions should be treated requires a different level of understanding that is only possible through appreciating the fact that living in harmony is priceless.


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Bender, T. (2006).A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History. New York: Hill & Wang. p. 61.

Bergen, P. (2001). Holy War, Inc. New York: Free Press, 2001. Pg.66.

Coll, S. (2004).Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden (Penguin, 2004), p87.

Johnson, L. (2006). Strategic Intelligence, Intelligence and the quest for security, Greenwood Publishing Group.

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Stephen, K. (2006). Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.Times Books.


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