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The Elusive Concept of Covert Operations

The covert operations undertaken by the United States have been demonstrated in many ways. A cursory list of the post-World War II operations would include efforts to influence outcome of elections in Western European countries during the early cold war, the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, the 1963 attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba, the 1963 overthrow of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic, the 1964 defeat of rebel forces loyal to Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the 1965 propaganda campaign to overthrow the Sukarno government in Indonesia, the 1967 provision of aid to overthrow George Papandreou and install George Papadopoulous in Greece, and involvement in the 1970 overthrow of Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia.[1] More recently, the Reagan administration was accused of engaging in illegal covert propaganda activities designed to persuade the news media and the public to support its Central American policies.[2]

The definition of covert operations differs among countries and administrations. As defined in the 1976 final report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, such operations include any clandestine activity designed to influence foreign governments, events, organizations, or persons in support of United States foreign policy. Covert action may include political and economic actions, propaganda and paramilitary activities [and is] planned and executed . . . so as to conceal the identity of the sponsor or else to permit the sponsor's plausible denial of the operation.[3]

Former Central Intelligence Agency director Stansfield Turner puts it more cogently: "Covert action is the term that describes our efforts to influence the course of events in a foreign country without our role being known." Turner also notes that covert action "has always been assigned to the CIA to perform, by means of unattributable propaganda, sub rosa political action, or secret paramilitary support."[4]
Still, like other bureaucratic actions, the precise status and definition of covert operations, from an examiner's standpoint, are difficult to establish. For example, on January 24, 1978, President Carter issued Executive Order 12036, which used the euphemism "special activities" for covert operations and defined them as activities conducted abroad in support of natio al foreign policy objectives which are designed to further official United States programs and policies abroad and which are planned and executed so that the role of the United States government is not apparent or acknowledged publicly, and functions in support of such activities, but not including diplomatic activity or the collection and production of intelligence or related support functions.[5]

President Reagan provided a similarly vague definition in his 1981 executive order on intelligence. The only significant change was the addition of a passage stating that such special activities "are not intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media...." r