Cato Policy Analysis No. 118 April 7, 1989

Policy Analysis

The Pitfalls of U.S. Covert Operations

by David Isenberg

David Isenberg is a research associate at the Project on Military Procurement and has written widely on defense and foreign policy issues.


Executive Summary

Covert operations, by definition, are difficult to examine. Because they are shrouded in secrecy, one is never sure whether all the relevant data concerning their scope, origin, and degree of success are at hand. Yet it is apparent that governments will continue to insist on having covert operations as an option. What motivates the United States to undertake such actions and how well the United States has been served by these measures are especially crucial issues.

An examination of U.S. covert-action policy since World War II reveals two facts that are not always fully appreciated. First, both the scope and the scale of such operations have been enormous. Paramilitary operations--which can be more accurately described as secret wars, the most extreme form of covert action--have resulted in countless deaths and immense destruction. Covert operations have become the instrument of choice for policymakers who assume that a cold war status quo is inevitable.

Second, the success of U.S. covert operations has been exaggerated. Some operations, such as the one against the Soviet Union in the early postwar years and the later one against Castro, were outright fiascoes. Other operations, such as the ones involving Greece and Iran, which were once acclaimed successes, left a legacy of anti-Americanism that continues to hamper the conduct of our foreign policy. Moreover, because such operations have almost always become public-- Nicaragua being an obvious example--debates over their legitimacy have fostered considerable domestic divisiveness.

Thus, it is time for a reassessment of the role of covert operations in U.S. foreign policy. How effective are they? Under what circumstances, if any, should they be used? What reforms are needed?

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