HPSCI Wants President to Plan for Leaks of Covert Action

12.02.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The President would have to prepare a written plan for responding to the possibility of an unauthorized disclosure of any CIA covert action program, according to a provision adopted last month by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The requirement was introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and was adopted by voice vote in the pending FY 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act (section 307).

The measure represents an implicit acknowledgment that the secrecy of CIA covert action today cannot be assured or blithely assumed, particularly when compartmented intelligence programs are regularly reported in the press.

Covert action by definition is a CIA activity that is intended to be deniable and unattributable to the U.S. government.  Covert action is considered to be an option when public disclosure of the operation would render it unfeasible, diminish its utility, or generate adverse consequences for the United States.

The history of CIA covert action, which remains obscure in large part, includes some notable successes, such as the clandestine support of Poland’s Solidarity movement. But the record also includes terrifying failures, like the overthrow of Guatemala’s leadership in 1954, which inaugurated decades of violent oppression in that country.

Analysts and former intelligence officials (such as Greg Treverton, Roy Godson, and Loch Johnson) have long argued that covert action should never be undertaken without a degree of confidence that the American public would support it if it were known.

The Schakowsky provision would effectively force such consideration of public reaction by requiring officials to anticipate and plan for the unintended disclosure of each covert action program.

Although her amendment was adopted by the House Intelligence Committee without objection, Rep. Schakowsky ended up opposing the Committee markup of the FY2014 intelligence bill.  As explained in the Minority Views appended to the Committee report, she objected to the bill’s failure to ban so-called “signature strikes,” referring to the targeted killing of unknown persons based on their suspicious behavior, or signature.

Another proposal favored by Rep. Schakowsky but not adopted by the Committee would have required “an independent alternative analysis prior to striking a U.S. person.”