Appendix A: Covert Action: The Delicate Balance

The new international environment of the post-Cold War not only justifies the continued use of covert action to pursue US national security objectives, but actually increases covert action's importance as a foreign policy tool. However, this new generation of covert action will largely be of a different nature than during the Cold War, and thus past objections against its use will become far less relevant(69)

No longer will operations focus on the overthrow of leftist governments. Instead, the role of covert action will be to control, influence, and counter threats such as nuclear proliferation, global organized crime, information warfare, and openly hostile foreign governments.


A strong covert action capability needs a global presence of HUMINT

In accordance with Section 4.2, investment in the Directorate of Operations (DO) should increase in order to ensure a global presence of human intelligence (HUMINT). HUMINT agents are often well-positioned to both influence the perceptions of important foreigners and provide essential information for covert operations at low cost.(70)

In an era where nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, and terrorism are high priority threats, technical collection will not provide adequate support for covert action. Infiltrating terrorist groups and global crime networks is an extremely difficult, long term project that must be vigilantly pursued through HUMINT. If the United States had had an adequate presence in the Middle East, a covert action operation might have prevented the loss of American lives in both Riyadh and Dhahran.

Give more oversight power to Congress regarding covert operations

Protecting the nation from covert action is just as important as protecting the nation with covert action. Although the current system of oversight eliminates many opportunities for abuse, a few further steps need to be taken to close loopholes.

One of the principal sources of Congressional oversight power is the appropriations process. Thus, in order to prevent future deceptions similar to those employed in Iran-Contra, legislation should require the President to notify Congress prior to accepting any foreign financial assistance for a covert operation. This recommendation would give Congress a chance to act before the United States enters a situation that might later entail some obligation or responsibility.

Although the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991 requires Congressional notification of any covert operation within 48 hours of authorization, Congress is still being deprived of oversight power.(71)

Prior to the execution of any covert operation, the President should be required to report to at least the chairmen and the ranking minority members of the intelligence committees, the Speaker and the minority leader of the House of Representatives, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate. Advance notification of these eight individuals would not be cumbersome and would once again allow Congress to use its leverage to stop undesirable activities before they start.

Include covert action options in threat assessment reports

Intelligence reporting on the foreign acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions should also include an assessment of the US human intelligence collection capabilities (HUMINT) in that country or region and available covert action options. This recommendation ensures that intelligence not only evaluates potential dangers, but also evaluates the preparedness of the United States to deal with them.(72)


69. Roy Godson, "Covert Action: Neither Exceptional Tool Nor Magic Bullet," in Roy Godson, Ernest R. May, and Gary Schmitt, eds. U.S. Intelligence at the Crossroads, (Washington: Brassey's, 1995), pg 166.

70. Ibid, pg. 296.

71. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1991, P.L. 102-88, Sec. 503 (a)(1).

72. Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal year 1997, Title VII, Sec. 721.