At the last debate for the Republican presidential candidates, there was quite a bit of talk about using “covert” activities. A quick look at the transcript shows the word came up 12 times in 90 minutes, referencing secret acts in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere.

It led David Ignatius to note that would-be GOP presidents are being “weirdly overt … about waging covert war.”

The language the GOP candidates used was astonishing, at least for people who assume that covert activities are ones that aren’t talked about openly — much less, touted in campaign debates. […]

This field of Republicans says strange things in debates, but it was still startling to hear the leading candidates’ statements. Mitt Romney said President Obama should have worked “on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents.” Herman Cain said he would “assist the opposition movement in Iran that’s trying to overthrow the regime.” Newt Gingrich promised “maximum covert operations … including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable.”

Romney also promised “covert activity” against Syria, while Gingrich argued for a “mostly covert” effort to topple the Syrian regime.

What is it about “covert” that the Republicans don’t understand?

I’m well aware of the fact that voters aren’t likely to care, and that the economy will be the dominant issue in 2012.

But when I talk about Republicans lacking credibility on national security issues, this only helps reinforce the case. There’s just nothing serious or trustworthy about these candidates.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.