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Covert Action to Target Gadhafi?

Gary Thomas March 04, 2011

Top U.S. officials from President Barack Obama on down have made it clear Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi should go. The United States is considering a range of options to pressure Mr. Gadhafi. One of them might be a covert program to topple him.

In a time of international crisis, a U.S. president has an array of tools he can choose from to affect events, ranging from diplomacy to full-blown military action. But lying somewhere in between is covert action.

Simply defined, covert action is any U.S. government effort to change the economic, military, or political situation overseas in a hidden way. Intelligence professionals consider it to be different than clandestine operations, which cover more traditional espionage and counterintelligence activities. Covert action can encompass many things, including propaganda, covert funding, electoral manipulation, arming and training insurgents, and even encouraging a coup.

Is covert action under way in Libya? Those who know are not telling. The key to a successful covert action, after all, is secrecy. But the situation in Libya is chaotic. Jennifer Sims, visiting professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a specialist in intelligence affairs, says covert action should not be undertaken without a clear picture of what the outcome will - or at least should - be.

"I think of it as a gymnastics move," said Sims. "If you can’t visualize it from the moment you start running down the mat until you stick the landing, you better not try to start running down the mat. And I don’t know that things are at all clear on the ground in Libya at the moment. I don’t know what our [intelligence] collection assets are, but it could be a very, very difficult thing to pull off. And we don’t know what the end game would be at this moment, or we’d have to find out."

Covert actions traditionally have been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency. Charles Allen, who served more than 40 years at the CIA, says proposals for covert action originate not from spies but policymakers. The CIA, he says, is merely an instrument.

The Central Intelligence Agency rarely suggests this," said Allen. "This usually comes, and almost invariably comes, from the president and his senior policymakers - secretary of state, secretary of defense, or the National Security Council. Under some presidents, they’ve been very limited. Under others, where the threat was viewed as higher, covert actions are more often used.

As Sims points out, covert actions are very tempting tools for a president to use.

"The upside is that you can get outcomes that are ripe for getting with a minimum use, ideally, of force," she said. "And by keeping the U.S. hand hidden, you can hopefully get it without getting blowback on the United States in terms of public outcry over the outcomes that might make others unhappy. The downside, of course, is exactly what the upside is - that you’re hiding the U.S. hand, and if it gets exposed, you can get blowback worse than you were ever going to get on the overt side."

Some operations, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, were disasters. Others, such as backing the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s against Soviet occupation, have been more widely viewed as successful. In 1975, U.S. plots to assassinate foreign leaders came to light. The glare of public spotlight led to strict rules on covert action, including requiring presidential approval of covert actions and notification of eight key members of the Congress responsible for intelligence oversight.

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