Covert Operations, Cold War and beyond

The history of Covert Operations goes back far beyond the Cold War, with many operations during the two World wars and even long before then. Despite this long history the hay day of covert operations was during the Cold War where two opposing power blocks faced each other but were unwilling to risk an actual war. It was from this period that the lessons for future covert operations should be drawn. Covert operations cover a wide range of secret activities NSC 10/2 published in June 1948 defined covert operations as comprising of " propaganda, economic warfare, preventative direct action, including sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures, subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground movements, guerrillas and support of indigenous anti communist elements". As this broad definition indicates the nature of covert operations can vary greatly as can their size and scale.

The main problem with drawing lessons from the Cold War experience is that the early history of covert operations is misleading. Wartime successes for the British with SOE and the US with the OSS, helped make covert action a popular option with the intelligence services, and decision makers alike. Early US operations were successful, such as the CIA's help to the Italian Christian Democrats, and the help to the Iranian Shah in 1953 code name TPAJAX. In 1954 an operation code named PBSUCCESS involved a Guatemalan Colonel Carlos C. Armas entering his home country with a small force, which had a CIA backing and was backed up by CIA pilots after some confusion Armas became President. These early successes helped increase the CIA's reputation and since they were " small, cheap, fast and tolerably secret, they encouraged Washington to think other covert actions could be likewise."

These successes outweighed a contemporary failure of covert action, One operation which held several lessons for future operations, not only in the Cold War, but for future covert operations, was that of the covert operations in Albania between 1949 and 1954. These operations were a paramilitary operation, which are the most controversial of all covert operations as the more recent Phoenix Program in Vietnam showed. Paramilitary operations are the most difficult to conceal and arguably the most publicly damaging if they go wrong. To be effective a Paramilitary covert operation must unlike the Albania operation, achieve policy objectives and protect their sponsor via plausible deniability. If paramilitary operations are so potentially damaging why undertake them? The answer is that they can be very effective not only to support a larger war effort like the Phoenix Program but to subvert hostile and bolster friendly regimes.

The Albanian operation is also interesting because it was a joint Anglo-US operation which helps highlight some of the problems of different states cooperating on covert action. In the post cold war environment the likelihood of cooperation between services is more likely, especially since many countries face similar threats from Weapon Proliferation, organised crime, the elicit drug trade and international terrorism. The operation to subvert the Albanian regime was undertaken by the British SIS, which had greater prestiges and the young CIA which had greater resources. The idea of targeting Albania was a British one and although at the higher levels co-operation worked smoothly, in the field different operating techniques soon caused tensions. For example the British preferred small amphibious landings to the American method of dangerous low-level parachute drops. The west had greatly over estimated the strength of resistance to the communists and the requirement for plausible deniability backfired. Since the British and Americans stressed deniability, exiles sent back had great difficulty proving they had western support. The two countries had fundamentally different views on the collection of intelligence and covert operations. Bitter disputes severely damaged the operations effectiveness. These lessons in cooperation and the dangers it holds to covert operations have largely been ignored; the failure of the Albanian operation was blamed on the Soviet penetration of the operation by the SIS liaison officer in Washington, Kim Philby.

The effect of Philby's treachery was considerable but it has clouded the lessons that could have been learned from the operation. During this period covert action was popular because normal intelligence activities were severely curtailed in the eastern European countries. For many in the CIA, covert operations, especially paramilitary ones were seen as capable of performing wonders, as Albania and equally disastrous operations in Poland and the Ukraine showed his was not the case. This lesson of recognising the limits of covert action was to be repeated time and time again through the Cold War. The Albanian experience showed that even apparently weak regimes could defend themselves against foreign supported insurgents. It also showed the cost of failure in paramilitary covert actions that is it normally leads to a crack down by the regime against any opposition often weakening the position of those the covert action was meant to help. Secondly, it can have a serious effect on the relations between States; in the case of the Albania relations with the West were hostile until the end of the 1980's. A covert operation needs good intelligence and perversely the areas in Eastern Europe that they were carried out in, were areas of poor intelligence. Paramilitary actions are poor replacement for direct military action but in the modern post Cold war environment they may be the most effective form of action. During the Cold War the problems were generally much less complex than today, as Churchill once said reflecting on a changing world," in the midst of war, I could always see how to do it. Today's problems are elusive and intangible. "

After the CIA's limited success in Eastern Europe, fears of communist expansion led to involvement in the Third World with more success. Their success here illustrates a point about covert operations, it is frequently easier to support the status quo and bolster a friendly regime than it is to bring down a hostile one. Where covert action and support failed the price was high, the United States image in the Third World suffered drastically. Where it did succeed US covert support often tainted a friendly regime and in the long run weakened them as with the Shah of Iran whose pro western leanings definitely had a part in his downfall. Covert actions in the Third World often risked sending the wrong ' signals' for example the US aid to UNITA in Angola in 1975. Originally, designed to counter Cuban and the Soviet support once South Africa intervened to help the US backed forces it signalled to the Third World that the US was allied with the South African Regime.

Covert actions have several pitfalls, firstly how effective are they? Operation TPAJAX may have tainted the Shah and brought his downfall in the long run, but it did help give Iran twenty-five years of stability. Other actions are harder to calculate such as the Covert support to Chilean opposition parties in the early 1970's, was the CIA's support crucial or would Allende's government have failed any way? Was the success of the Guatemalan operation due to covert action or overt foreign policy? It is difficult to tell. Other operations although successful will remain secret due to the political embarrassment they would cause now, such as the CIA's aid to the Tibetans against the Chinese occupation of their land.

Failure in convert operations can no longer be kept secret, a more aggressive press in most liberal democracies helps guarantee this. The Iran/contra scandal in the US illustrates this, as does the Matrix Churchill affair in the UK. Keeping a covert action secret for a long period of time is impossible, so future covert operations must be planned with this in mind, they can only expect short term memory secrecy so must be seen to back up an existing public policy. For example, the Iran/contra affair directly contraindicated a public US policy of not dealing with terrorists, if this operation had been undertaken earlier in the Cold War then it may have remained secret for much longer and may have been effective. With the calls for increasing accountability of the secret services in the most Western Liberal Democracies the time a covert operation can expect to remain covert is shorter still. Despite this it is worth noting that," Not every covert action is controversial. Of the 40 or so covert actions under way in the mid-1980's at least half had been subject of a press account", but this depends on the country, the US public have traditional viewed covert operations in a more favourable light than their European counter parts.

Another problem that covert operations face is that of escalation. By their very nature covert operations should remain small and low-key otherwise secrecy is impossible. The history of the Cold War is littered with operations, which had grand objectives far beyond their capabilities. When they failed the next logical step was taken and then the next and the next until the operation has growing size so that it is no longer covert or has any chance of success. The Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba illustrates this well. At times a limited goal is achieved but this just encourages the state to try for more ambitious goals as in Nicaragua where supplies to anti-government rebels in El Salvador were successfully stopped. In the post Cold War environment covert actions must also meet moral guidelines. During the Cold War almost any kind of covert action was sanctioned as long as it had a chance of success, as one veteran covert operator noted, " Given the black and white definition of the Cold War there was no shilly shallying about morality". In many respects the Cold War gave many Western agencies a carte blanche in regard to covert operations. In the post Cold War environment this is no longer the case, since it is expected that covert actions will not remain covert for very long they must show some respect for basic human rights and morality. This does not on the other hand mean that covert action I no longer a valid option, threats from hostile states still do exist and are now joined by new threats to the security of individual states and the international system as a whole. Such threats are of a very different order than the Cold War, and are in many ways much more suitable targets for cover action. Terrorism, the trade in illicit drugs and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are the threats to international security faced by many states. Already some covert operations against these threats have proved successful, such as the Israeli operations against Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons and the US " operation Blast Furnace" against the illicit drugs trade in 1986. With the end of the Cold War co operation between the services is likely to increase, especially against common threats such as weapon proliferation and any covert action undertaken must be merited on a case by case basis. Covert operations must now be considered in the light of Just War theory; with the potential damage they can do being carefully weighed against the good, which they are likely to achieve. With the US war on terrorism it is likely that many operations that would be considered morally dubious will now be acceptable in the name of countering the terrorist threat. Only when these moral guidelines are applied can such ill-conceived operations as the French Covert action against the Green Peace ship, The Rainbow Warrior in 1985 in New Zealand, which killed a crewman and the plots to kill Castro in the 1960's, be avoided. Covert operations have a long and somewhat chequered history, but this does not mean that they are now useless with the end of the Cold War. Many of the threats now facing world security require a low-key covert response such as terrorism or the drugs trade. Covert action can supply this response but it can only be effective if the lessons of the cold War are learned, lessons about the limits of covert action, co-operation, tradecraft, further more covert action must be undertaken under strict ethical and moral guidelines to be a justified means to modern ends.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (29 August 2003), Covert Operations, Cold War and beyond,

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