Human Rights

USA Theme A-2 - Page 17

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Some Important Lessons

Despite all the publicity of the past two years, the question remains: How effective are covert actions?

The answer for the United States seems to be that covert operations are not all they are believed to be. The criticism is longstanding. In 1961 the President's Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence told President Eisenhower, "We have been unable to conclude that, on balance, all of the covert action programs undertaken by the CIA up to this time have been worth the risk or the great expenditure of manpower, money and other resources involved."[44]

In fact, U.S. covert operations often have had potential or actual drawbacks. Raymond Garthoff, former State Department official, notes that three CIA-sponsored covert-action teams were in Cuba at the peak of the 1962 missile crisis "when a false move on either side could have escalated into all-out war."[45] One might ponder the possible destabilizing ramifications of covert operations in other global trouble spots when a crisis occurs.

Furthermore, although a formal process of command and control exists within the CIA, the standard operating procedures are not always followed. In fact, exceptions often appear to be the rule. One observer notes:

Certain clandestine activities which would seem to an outsider logically to be the responsibility of one component are often carried out by another because of political sensitivity, because of an assumed need for even greater secrecy than usual, because of bureaucratic compartmentalization, or simply because they were always done that way.[46]

An example of this was revealed in 1984 when the CIA's "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare" manual was produced and distributed to the contras.[47] Written by a CIA contract employee, the manual did not hesitate to advocate deliberate terrorism. One section spoke of hiring professional criminals for some activities. Another discussed the creation of "martyrs" to aid the cause, if necessary, by arranging the death of the contras' own men. Other sections dealt with the selective use of violence, as in assassinating Sandinista officials to intimidate village populations.

The CIA's global installations, which can be used at the discretion of the CIA, are another source of difficulty. The covert projects that sustain these units rarely reach the executive review groups for approval. The results are that "(a) the executive may be tempted to use covert actions merely because the infrastructure exists . . . and (b) information about operations may not reach the White House."[48] One must remember that under the law passed in the aftermath of the Church committee hearings, the president is required to consult with Congress in advance of a covert operation but is allowed, in special circumstances, to give only "timely notice" after an operation has begun.

Furthermore, U.S. officials often resort to implausible excuses in an attempt to preserve plausible deniability. Over time the Reagan administration has explained its support for the contras as an attempt to support Nicaraguan moderates, to disrupt Cuban supply lines to Saladoran guerrillas, and to force Nicaragua to halt aid to El Salvador and to adopt military and domestic policies preferred by Washington. But the "covert" contra operation has served none of those purposes. Instead it has made the policy an object of national division and, to an extent, international opprobrium. And because the CIA's legal authority to conduct covert operations is unclear, the stage has been set for constant battle between the executive and legislative branches over the authorization and continuation of such activities.[49]