Human Rights

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U.S. Covert Operations as a Cold War Weapon

Since its founding, the United States has used covert actions sporadically, but only after World War II were covert actions integrated into the overall intelligence establishment as a permanent option, with all the bureaucratic trappings.

It is generally accepted that covert action has been an instrument of modern U.S. foreign policy since 1947-48, when U.S. policymakers decided such a capability could be used on a limited basis in conjunction with overt efforts to halt the expansion of Soviet power and communism in general. Ironically, after the CIA was formally established on September 18, 1947, covert action became the top priority. The CIA undertook such operations under pressure from leading U.S. officials of the day to support basic U.S. foreign policy. Ray Cline, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence, writes:

The officials who argued the United States had to fight back covertly against widespread political subversive efforts sponsored by the Soviet Union in Germany, France, and Italy in 1947 and 1948 were Secretary of State George C. Marshall . . . Secretary of War Robert Patterson, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, and George Kennan, then Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff.[13]

Over 40 years later one cannot readily appreciate the pressures of foreign policy and international politics in the early postwar years that brought about a covert-action capability. Especially important during this period was the growing suspicion of communists, who were suspected of being everywhere and of seeking world domination. The combination of an atmosphere of urgency and fear and an almost instinctive reliance on action in a crisis was the background to the Truman Doctrine and to the Truman administration's decision to contend with the Soviet Union. Given U.S. economic and military dominance after the war, such a decision was probably inevitable. The increasingly action-oriented power of the United States led to the decision to confront the Soviets: It was seen as a conflict the United States simply could not avoid, especially because Western Europe was geographically divided between the two superpowers and because the colonial empires in Asia and Africa had come to an end.[14]

During the debate over the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA and the Defense Department, much discussion was devoted to the question of who should supervise intelligence as well as covert operations. Secretary of State George Marshall wanted the State Department separated from such operations out of fear that if American diplomacy were integrated with American espionage, U.S. foreign diplomacy could be compromised. This view brought the department into forceful opposition to the concept of the CIA, effectively removing the State Department from contention as the agency of central intelligence coordination.[15]

One should remember that the National Security Act said nothing about conducting covert-action programs. But it contained a catch-all clause allowing the CIA to take on "such other functions and duties relating to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct," and that clause was later cited as an authorization for covert actions.