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U.S. Covert Actions and Counter-Insurgency Programs

In mid-June 1948, Truman signed National Security Council Directive 10/2, authorizing a program of "covert operations" by the US government. It provided that such operations would be carried out so that if they were uncovered "the US government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them. Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to propaganda; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world."

Covert action, as defined in statute, is an action by the U.S. government to influence conditions abroad where the role of the U.S. will not be acknowledged. Traditional military activities are exempt from the definition of covert action. Military operations or "preparation of the environment" - though clandestine innature - are operations that, if discovered, could not be officially denied by theU.S. government. As a practical matter, the line between covert actions under Title 50 and clandestine military operations under Title 10 has blurred.

Covert action means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include: (1) Activities the primary purpose of which is to acquire intelligence, traditional counterintelligence activities, traditional activities to improve or maintain the operational security of United States Government programs, or administrative activities; (2) Traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities; (3) Traditional law enforcement activities conducted by United States Government law enforcement agencies or routine support to such activities; or (4) Activities to provide routine support to the overt activities (other than activities described inparagraph (1), (2), or (3)) of other United States Government agencies abroad.

No agency except the Central Intelligence Agency (or the Armed Forces of the United States in time of war declared by the Congress or during any period covered by a report from the President to the Congress consistent with the War Powers Resolution, Public Law 93-148) may conduct any covert action activity unless the President determines that another agency is more likely to achieve a particular objective. No covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.

Only the president can direct the CIA to undertake a covert action. Such actions usually are recommended by the National Security Council (NSC). Covert actions are considered when the NSC judges that US foreign policy objectives may not be fully realized by normal diplomatic means and when military action is deemed to be too extreme an option. Therefore, the Agency may be directed to conduct a special activity abroad in support of foreign policy where the role of the US Government is neither apparent nor publicly acknowledged. Once tasked, the Director of Central Intelligence must notify the intelligence oversight committees of the Congress.

The Doolittle Report of 1954 stated: "It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive...we...must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us..."

Many of the Agency's covert action projects and plans were little short of frivolous and on occasion potentially disastrous. Sometimes, they promised only disaster, even if successful, as with the collusion with the Mafia to dispose of Fidel Castro. Or they focused on a superficial symptom while ignoring a massive problem, as with the abortive plot to poison Patrice Lumumba in the chaos of the Congo in 1960. For sheer detachment from reality, there is the 1958 episode in which the Agency thought to influence Laotian elections by parachuting bulldozers into a few remote villages as harbingers of new roads about to be built by a beneficent government.

The document collection, widely known as the "Family Jewels," consists of almost 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger asking them to report activities they thought might be inconsistent with the Agency's charter. The Director issued instructions to each directorate to come forward with descriptions of activities (especially involved in the domestic scene) that had flap potential. Besides MHCHAOS and HTLINGUAL, other "Jewels" included assassination plots against foreign leaders, drug testing on unwitting subjects, and security investigations of suspected "leakers" of secret information.

The requirement for reports by the President on covert action abroad has been caught up in controversy since 1974, when the first such obligation appeared in public law. Through the Hughes-Ryan Amendment (Public Law 93-559) Congress for the first time required the President to make a finding that such covert operations were essential to the national security interests of the United States and to report ``in a timely fashion, a description and scope of such operation to the appropriate committees of Congress,'' with the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees specifically cited. The adoption of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment came in the aftermath of revelations of CIA covert operations abroad, including some of which helped to destabilize elected governments.

New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh was on the story. His front-page account on 24 December 1974--"Huge CIA Operation Reported In US Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years"--set off a firestorm of criticism of the CIA and prompted the investigations by the Rockefeller Commission and the Church and Pike committees in 1975-1976.

The following year, 1975, Congress for the first time halted a covert operation, cutting off funds for military and paramilitary operations in Angola. The ban was extended in 1976 and remained in force for a decade. Other congressional investigations, including those conducted by temporary select committees in the House and Senate (i.e., the Pike and Church Committees in 1975-1976), discovered or verified a wide range of covert operations during the cold war era, including assassination plots against foreign leaders.

Initially, the Church Committee [1975-76] asked the Agency to provide data on "all its covert action activities." In June 1975, however, the committee scaled back its request to data on five specific programs, including the Agency's prioractivities in Chile, as well as an overview of all covert action programs sinceWorld War II. In the end, the committee produced six staff reports on covert action programs, only one of which (on Chile) was made public.

By the end of the 1970s, there were eight ``appropriate committees'' of Congress, four in each Chamber; these included the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence, created in 1976 and 1977, respectively. In 1980, Congress and the Carter Administration reached an accommodation to revise the reporting requirements; each branch received what it sought in a quid pro quo through the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act (Public Law 96-450).

As the Administration requested, the number of panel recipients was reduced from eight to two (i.e., the Intelligence Committees). For Congress, the new law imposed additional reporting obligations on the executive, expanding the scope, volume, and timeliness of information about intelligence activities, including covert action abroad. The 1980 Act directed the intelligence agencies to keep the Select Committees on Intelligence ``fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities . . . including any significant anticipated intelligence activity,'' referring to planned covert operations. Notification was to be in advance, except when the President determined that ``it is essential to limit prior notice to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting the vital interests of the United States.'' Even then, he was to report to the so-called ``gang of eight,'' a bipartisan group of leaders of the House and Senate and of the Intelligence Committees; and he was to notify the Select Committees ``in a timely fashion'' about the covert operation and the reasons for not notifying them in advance.

Case officers in the CIA's Clandestine Service interpreted legislation, such as the Hughes-Ryan Amendment requiring that the president approve and report to Congress any covert action, as sending a message to them that covert action often leads to trouble and can severely damage one's career. Controversies surrounding Central American covert action programs in the mid-1980s led to the indictment of several senior officers of the Clandestine Service. During the 1990s, tension sometimes arose, as it did in the effort against al Qaeda, between policymakers who wanted the CIA to undertake more aggressive covert action and wary CIA leaders who counseled prudence and making sure that the legal basis and presidential authorization for their actions were undeniably clear.

The notification system broke down during the Iran-contra affair in 1985-1986 and the law governing intelligence oversight was again amended. A staffer for McFarlane and Poindexter, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, developed a scheme to trade U.S. arms for hostages and divert the proceeds to the Contras to get around U.S. law. He may have had encouragement from Director of Central Intelligence William Casey. When the facts were revealed in 1986 and 1987, it appeared to be the 1970s all over again: a massive abuse of covert action. Now, instead of stories about poisoned cigars and Mafia hit men, Americans heard testimony about a secret visit to Tehran by McFarlane, using an assumed name and bearing a chocolate cake decorated with icing depicting a key.

The approved Fiscal Year 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act contains a series of new provisions for reporting on covert action. These include the requirements: that the President's findings be in writing and not retroactive, that all government agencies and entities (not just the CIA) be clearly covered, and that Congress be informed if a third party or another country might become involved (under the revised version of the Act, this party or country does not have to be named.). The statute, however, does not specify a time limit on reporting to the Select Committees on Intelligence if the panels are not notified in advance of a covert operation. President Bush, however, wrote that in ``those rare instances where prior notice is not provided, I anticipate that notice will be provided within a few days. Any withholding beyond this period will be based upon my assertion of authorities granted this office by the Constitution.''

The Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence has Title 10 and Title 50 authorities. The USD(I) was dual-hatted by DNI McConnell to serve concurrently as his Deputy Director for Defense. Yet, the USD(I) has, on occasion, asserted that the Intelligence Committees do not have primary jurisdiction over his programs. This is of particular concern to these Committees as the USD(I) has interpreted Title 10 to expand "military source operations" authority, allowing the Services and Combatant Commands to conduct clandestine HUMINT operations worldwide. These activities can come awfully close to activities that constitute covert action.

In response to Questions for the Record, DCI Leon E. Panetta stated : "I believe the requirements of Title 50 should apply in the case of a military operation that is intended to influence conditions abroad and where the Departmentof Defense is seeking to hide the hand of U.S. involvement. Further, I amconcerned that Title 10 and Title 50 operations are not always well coordinated, which is essential if they are to be effective. Finally, I am concerned that Title 10operations, though practically identical to Title 50 operations, may not be subjected to the same oversight as covert actions, which must be briefed to the Intelligence Committees."

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:12 ZULU