Defining Success in Covert Operations

Covert operations are clandestine political, paramilitary, and psychological warfare. The United States long has engaged in such activities, including CIA support for resistance and guerilla groups in foreign nations.


During the Cold War the CIA built stay-behind networks in western Europe to resist Russian invasion in case of a future war. Such activities are generally called destabilization operations.


Covert operations are a form of foreign policy and, when used properly, can accomplish international objectives more quickly than diplomacy or the threat of force. However, the knowledge of covert actions can undermine trust in democratic institutions and may foster conspiracy theories about foreign actors and scapegoating for domestic political divisions.

The activities that comprise covert operations fall into broad categories: political action, paramilitary activity, psychological warfare and economic warfare. The CIA’s historical approach to political actions has involved supporting political parties, private organizations and individuals that have a positive impact on American interests. These activities often include cooperation and cover with opposition or guerrilla movements.

A key challenge in evaluating covert action is that it can be difficult to separate plausible deniability from the broader context of foreign policy. For example, when the CIA supported Solidarity in Poland, overt government sponsorship coexisted with covert support for anti-communist dissidents, and it is difficult to isolate one from the other. Moreover, covert activity can have unanticipated long-term effects, both foreign and domestic. Consequently, a country should consider the risks and costs of covert action before undertaking it.


In the postwar era the bulk of covert activities were carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency. These largely tended to be in Third World nations and against putative Soviet foes. From 1954 to 1958 the CIA supported hundreds of propaganda assets, from radio stations broadcasting to the Soviet Union, to the more controversial paramilitary actions aimed at bringing down regimes such as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and armed efforts to destabilize the Cuban government.

The rise of resistance and guerrilla movements, similar to those used by Germany in Norway, Hungary, and Romania, and Japan in Vietnam, Burma, and India, brought demand for clandestine intelligence assistance. The resulting Office of Strategic Services (OSS) pushed the limits of espionage by providing a wide range of political action, from the comparatively bloodless propaganda of cultural diplomacy to surreptitious paramilitary support of opposition and guerrilla movements.

Because of their nature, covert operations are subject to a great deal of secrecy. Consequently, a number of scholars have studied the failures and successes of individual operations and have derived lessons that may be applied to future efforts in the field.


Covert operations are aimed at accomplishing something that could not be accomplished openly. They can involve non-violent actions like influencing foreign opinion by subsidizing publications or spreading false rumors or violent action such as sabotage or paramilitary support of guerrilla movements against a foreign government. One of the key factors in evaluating effectiveness of covert actions is a clear definition of their objectives.

The CIA’s involvement in clandestine activities rose to new heights during World War II. In addition to traditional espionage missions, the Office of Strategic Services began providing assistance and training to resistance and guerrilla groups from France to Burma.

After the war the CIA became concerned that its covert operations were becoming too prominent a part of the agency’s business. This detracted from its chief function, the dispassionate collection and analysis of intelligence. It also diverted attention away from congressional hearings and oversight by the Intelligence Committees. This is a problem that continues to this day. There is a debate over whether espionage and covert action organizations should be kept separate at CIA headquarters.


Covert operations have a long history in warfare. Fomentation of rebellion has been a central technique, including such episodes as the British plots with royalist agents against Napoleon (1800-1804), the French machinations in Mexico, Persia and Turkey (1912-1916) and the American schemes during the Spanish Civil War (36-1939).

Economic warfare is another variation, often using paramilitary-style commando raids to sabotage or destroy a hostile regime’s production capability or scientific-technological base. More recently, the use of terrorist cells and front organizations has become a popular method.

Among the most enduring issues that emerge from examinations of covert operations is their difficulty in attaining their stated objectives. The need to conceal the identity of the sponsor and allow for plausible deniability limits the scope of an operation. In recent years the line between clandestine and covert has been blurred as presidents have sought open appropriations for overt covert activities or dispensed with plausible deniability entirely in the course of the War on Terror. Moreover, the CIA has shifted from its ideal role as an informing intelligence agency to one that has practical policy interests and the need to advocate them.


The CIA’s failure to penetrate the communist enemy after World War II marked a turning point in the agency. Consequently, understanding what constitutes success in covert action is crucial for the future of U.S. intelligence and national security. Yet assessing success is difficult, since it entails interpreting complex narratives that span contested criteria beyond programmatic outcomes.

These include the moral boundaries of covert operations and their compatibility with democracy, as well as establishing procedural safeguards against the potential abuse of power by agents operating behind the shield of secrecy. Ultimately, this is a problem best addressed in practice—that is, through analyzing the actual planning and execution of covert action.

For example, the CIA’s 1953 coup against Mossadegh in Iran provides a useful case study for understanding what goes into a successful outside-sponsored overthrow of a sovereign government. It involves finding dissenting elements of a government that are ideologically sympathetic with the interveners, as well as having powerful vested interests and a credible alternative leader-figure willing to cooperate. Without these ingredients, a coup d’état may not be feasible.