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A Changing Political Environment

Operations in the first one and a half decades of the cold war gave the CIA a "can do" reputation. President after president turned to the CIA precisely because of its perceived ability to get a job done. However, if the CIA was able to "get the job done," it was largely because both the public and Congress were willing to accept the need for such activities. Even the occasional negative exposure of such actions did not lead to public or congressional repudiation. Gregory Treverton, a former National Security Council (NSC) staffer, writes:

Not every covert expose, however, has made for controversy. Some, indeed, stayed in the tabloids or were relegated to the back pages of major dailies. They did not produce political controversies to which the American government felt any need to respond. In the instance of Guatemala, for example in 1953, leaks about the American paramilitary efforts were discredited, not the operation itself.[23]

Treverton indicates that major changes, primarily in domestic politics, now make it more difficult for the United States to achieve its purposes secretly. He notes that most early covert actions were conceived in secrecy and began on a small scale. Yet the operational requirements of future successes, against increasingly better prepared opponents, required these actions to grow. As Treverton notes, this meant more intelligence officers, logistical facilities, funding, and involvement with other agencies, all of which diminished the chances that an operation would remain secret. Furthermore, even the early projects were thought to have no better than a 50-50 chance of success. And as time went by, achieving a successful covert operation became much more difficult. Castro's Cuba was an immensely more difficult target than Arbenz's Guatemala.

Furthermore, revolutionaries and incumbent leaders, whom U.S. officials deem harmful to American interests, have examined and learned lessons from America's covert-action history. They are determined not to repeat the mistakes of earlier victims or to appear as shaky "banana republics" susceptible to overthrow. To protect themselves, they have sought to mobilize their citizens, to ensure the loyalty of their army, and to turn to other countries for aid and support. One of these countries may be the Soviet Union, and this development can hardly be looked on as being in the best interest of the United States.

An example of this process occurred in the central African nation of Chad in the early 1980s. At that time Libyan troops occupied half of Chad, largely in response to a CIA covert paramilitary operation begun in 1981. The covert action consisted mainly of secretly supplying funds and military equipment to the forces of Hissen Habre, who was fighting to overthrow the Libyan-backed coalition government led by President Goukouni Oueddei. U.S. officials failed to understand that even if Habre came to power, the faction he replaced (Oueddei) could be expected to turn to Libya for support in an attempt to reverse Habre's victory. Subsequently, that is exactly what happened.