Covert Ops, Part 4

COVERT OPS, PART 4….Should the Pentagon have the authority and flexibility to run covert operations that might be illegal for the CIA? I’ve argued that this is something that needs a very public debate, but today Jeffrey Lewis at goes further. He says the whole thing is a bad idea for a very practical reason: the track record of covert ops is “uniformly miserable.”

Should the United States undertake operations that, if disclosed, endanger national security? Rarely, if ever, for two reasons:

  • First, covert operations are almost certain to be disclosed. Covert operations violate the first rule of life in Washington: Don?t ever do anything that you wouldn?t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post. The story by Bart Gellman helps drive the point home that, more often than not, covert operations eventually become public knowledge.

  • Second, covert operations often fail because they are covert. Shielding programs from Congressional oversight allows for small programs to devolve into gigantic, often bizarre, schemes that would never pass muster with Congress. Writing about the Iran-Contra affair, [Gregory] Treverton warned of the danger from centralizing White House control over covert operations. ?Excluding the designated congressional overseers,? Treverton wrote, ?also excluded one more ?political scrub,? one more source of advice about what the American people would find acceptable.?

Given that the challenge posed by AlQaeda is, largely, an ideological bid for the hearts and minds of millions of Muslims perhaps one more political scrub might not be such a bad idea.

Treverton’s 1987 review of covert ops in Foreign Affairs is behind a subscription wall, but read Lewis’s post for a summary. Obviously 9/11 has changed the calculus of covert ops, but their checkered history is a warning that at the very least they should be kept under control via vigorous political oversight.