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Covert Operations

Covert Operations. In June 1948, National Security Council Directive 10/2 defined covert operations as actions conducted by the United States against foreign states “which are so planned and executed that any U.S. Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the U.S. Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” It then authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to undertake such clandestine activities, including “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti‐sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberations groups, and support of indigenous anti‐communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.”

Long before the CIA became involved in covert operations, however, the United States had used similar clandestine methods to achieve national objectives. President George Washington, for example, who had a keen appreciation for the role of intelligence in both war and peace, persuaded Congress in July 1790 to establish the Contingent Fund of Foreign Intercourse. Known as the Secret Service fund, this money was spent by Washington (without a requirement for detailed accounting) in a covert operation to ransom Americans held hostage by the Barbary states.

During the nineteenth century, American presidents authorized covert operations on an infrequent, ad hoc basis. Although the United States remained isolated for the most part from international power politics, various administrations found cause to initiate covert operations in Canada, Cuba, Hawaii, and Central America. For the most part, the State Department maintained control over these clandestine activities. At no time did the government consider establishing a professional foreign intelligence service.

The increasing involvement of the United States in world affairs during the twentieth century led inexorably to the creation of a permanent intelligence service with the capability to undertake covert operations. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt both became deeply immersed in clandestine intelligence activities while fighting global wars. Indeed, the most immediate precedent for the CIA's covert operations can be found in World War II's Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that combined intelligence gathering with paramilitary covert action. The OSS provided assistance to resistance and guerrilla groups from France to Burma. Although “plausible deniability” was not required for these wartime activities, the methods and techniques—and many of the personnel—that were used by Gen. William Donovan's clandestine fighters were passed on to the CIA.

After World War II, policymakers in Washington recognized the need for an option beyond diplomacy but short of war as they grew apprehensive about the emergence of an aggressive Soviet Union that seemed to threaten American interests around the world. The National Security Act (1947), which created the CIA, gave the new organization not only the mission to collect and evaluate intelligence but also a vaguely worded duty “to perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” At the end of 1947, the National Security Council (NSC) first defined these “other functions and duties” when it made the CIA responsible for covert psychological operations. Directive 10/2 went much further, creating the Office of Special Projects (later, Office of Policy Coordination), headed by Frank Wisner to conduct a wide variety of covert operations.

The first clandestine project undertaken by the CIA was an attempt through psychological warfare and political covert action to influence the elections of 1948 in Western Europe. Paramilitary covert operations began with the Korean War. By 1952, the budget of the Office of Policy Coordination had grown from $4.7 million (1949) to $82 million. At the same time, personnel assigned to this covert action agency increased from 302 to 2,812 (plus 3,142 overseas contract personnel).

The presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61) marked the “golden age” of covert operations. More than any other chief executive in the postwar era, Eisenhower made covert action a major part of his foreign policy. The CIA, led by Allen Welsh Dulles, undertook a variety of clandestine activities at presidential direction, including the successful overthrow of unfriendly governments in Iran and Guatemala, and a failed attempt to topple the government of Indonesia. During the Eisenhower‐Dulles era, clandestine collection and covert action accounted for 54 percent of the CIA's total annual budget.

Although the disastrous attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 painfully revealed the limits of the CIA's capability for cover paramilitary action and led to the dismissal of Dulles, presidents during the 1960s continued to utilize covert operations with undiminished enthusiasm, most notably in the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The CIA was especially active in Laos, where between 1961 and 1973 it directed local troops against major Communist forces in the largest covert paramilitary operation in the agency's history. As a result of these activities, the budget of the clandestine service remained at over 50 percent of the CIA's total budget in the sixties.

By this time, the original concept of “plausible deniability” had been broadened to include the presidency. Assassination plots against such foreign leaders as Cuba's Fidel Castro and the Congo's Patrice Lumumba by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, for example, were structured in such a way that the president could deny responsibility for the activities.

Covert operations declined precipitously during the 1970s as a series of congressional investigations, especially the 1975–76 inquiry Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence (or Church Committee), led to greater skepticism about, and oversight of, intelligence activities. By 1977, the proportion of the CIA's budget allocated to covert action fell to less than 5 percent of the total budget, the lowest figure since 1948.

Congress, which had played little role in what was considered a prerogative of the executive branch, began to exercise tighter control of CIA clandestine activities with the Hughes‐Ryan Act (1974). This amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act prohibited the CIA from spending money for operations in foreign countries (other than for the collection of intelligence) “unless and until the President finds that each such operation is important to the national security of the United States and reports, in a timely fashion, a description and scope of each operation to the appropriate committees of Congress.” The Intelligence Oversight Act (1980) further expanded the role of Congress in monitoring covert operations. Indeed, by the 1980s, congressional committees not only exercised oversight over intelligence operations but also became part of the decision‐making process for covert action.

President Reagan and his CIA director, William Casey, placed renewed emphasis on covert operations as an instrument of national policy, especially in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Their efforts, including the use of the staff of the NSC to conduct covert action, led to the Iran‐Contra investigation, and increased congressional watchfulness over the executive branch's use of clandestine action. By the 1990s, covert operations, which could be conducted only under carefully controlled and fully reviewed conditions, had declined to a low ebb.
[See also Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Central Intelligence Agency; Counter insurgency; Intelligence, Military and Political; Iran, U.S. Military Involvement in; Iran‐Contra Affair.]


Rhodri Jeffreys‐Jones , American Espionage: From Secret Service to CIA, 1977.
William M. Leary, ed., The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents, 1984.
John Prados , Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II, 1986.
Loch K. Johnson , America's Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society, 1989.
Christopher Andrews , For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush, 1995.

William M. Leary

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"Covert Operations." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Ryan, Loch

Loch Ryan (lŏkh rī´ən), inlet, 9 mi (14.5 km) long and 31/2 mi (5.6 km) wide, at the mouth of the Firth of Clyde, Dumfries and Galloway, SW Scotland. The port of Stranraer is at the head of the sheltered loch.

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