Covert Operations

Covert operations involve secretive violence and subterfuge. They frequently have unintended consequences. Most, such as the CIA’s Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba, fail to overthrow a government or have substantial negative repercussions down the road.


They require plausible deniability, so they must be approved and managed by organs of the national government beyond the CIA. This became a formal function in 1974, when Congress required that the president report, through a document called a finding, all covert operations to congressional committees.


Covert operations are conducted with the intent to manipulate international events without either American or foreign targets knowing who is behind them. They can be unilateral, in support of an ally or adversary, or undertaken with a front organization. Their objective is to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad without openly acknowledging U.S. involvement or risking blowback.

In the context of international terrorism, global crime and information warfare, and openly hostile foreign governments, covert action is necessary to counter high-priority threats that cannot be solved through technical collection or conventional diplomacy alone. Achieving this goal requires a deep global presence and an extensive network of agents. While the use of HUMINT has long been a critical component of covert action, it is not enough on its own. Without a significant investment in covert action, infiltration of terrorist and criminal networks is unlikely to be successful.

While the CIA is authorized to conduct covert action by its standing authority under NSC Directive 10/2, congressional oversight of this type of activity is sparse. Prior to the intelligence oversight reforms of the l 970s, Congress rarely scrutinized the activities carried out under this authority. Moreover, the very nature of covert action makes it difficult for analysts outside of the Directorate of Operations to know about even the most successful operations, which makes a meaningful cost-benefit analysis impossible.


Unlike open diplomacy and military strategy, covert operations involve clandestine means to pursue policy. In peacetime, this might include non-violent covert action to generate disaffection among a state’s population, thereby weakening the power of its government to affect the world around it; or surreptitious decision-making by placing agents in key positions. In wartime, it might involve sabotage or even paramilitary support of a guerilla insurgency against a hostile government.

The shape and tactics of covert operations are dictated by policy. Proposals might originate with the president — for example, the CIA operation that became the Bay of Pigs began with him — or they could come from ambassadors, station chiefs, the deputy director for plans (DDP), or other intelligence agencies. The need to plan in secret, however, can require that covert actions take on a lower level of vetting in advance than overt ones.

As in warfare, it’s important to have a mix of skill sets to perform covert operations. Some of the most successful people ever involved in covert operations have been spies, saboteurs, or soldiers. They might be able to use their training in combat to help create a guerrilla force, or they might have the ruthless, killer instinct that’s necessary to destroy an enemy regime. They also have to be able to communicate with people outside the intelligence community, including the media, without blowing their cover or revealing methods.


Covert operations seek to accomplish their mission objectives without the target knowing who sponsors them. The activity may take the form of sabotage, assassinations or support for coups d’état or subversion. It also can involve a front organization, styling itself as something other than what it is. For example, the activities of the Polish trade union Solidarity in the 1980s were supported by CIA funding.

The secrecy of covert action often makes the underlying policy difficult to examine. It can also make interveners more willing to take riskier actions in uncertain conditions. It is not unusual for the line between official military and paramilitary activities and the work of front organizations to become blurred, as was the case with the Czechoslovak agents sent to assassinate the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

The thirteen international artists and collaboratives featured in this exhibition explore complex conceptual themes of secrecy and disclosure, violence, power and subterfuge by using legal and traditional research methods to uncover secret information about covert operations. The works investigate a range of topics including classified military sites and satellites, border and immigration surveillance, terrorist profiling, narcotics trafficking and illegal extradition flights. The exhibition aims to bring new attention to the role that covert operations play in national security and diplomacy. Covert action must be seen as an important part of any comprehensive strategy.


Oversight is an integral part of the American system of checks and balances. It is designed to ensure that policy measures enacted by elected officials are in accordance with the people’s interests and that they stay within the bounds of the law. However, the nature of covert operations usually necessitates that their missions be kept from the public. This creates a conflict between the democratic system and the requirements of covert action.

It is important that the President and the intelligence community have a firm understanding of what constitutes an effective and ethical covert operation, so they can develop policy to meet their nation’s needs. Historically, this has involved informal talks between the Director of Intelligence and a small group of senior members of Congress. However, the events of the Vietnam War and Watergate brought a change to this arrangement. In 1974, the Hughes-Ryan Act stipulated that the CIA would have to report, through a document called a finding, all of its covert operations to committees in both houses of Congress.

Those who argue for separating covert action from clandestine collection often do so because they do not realize that the two are not only complementary, but they also rely on each other to function. Separating them jeopardizes the effectiveness of an operation, and it also wreaks havoc with the intelligence community’s ability to provide analysis of the results of covert action.