Covert Operations

Covert operations are seductive, promising action on intractable international situations outside the awkward framework of war powers and noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations. They comprise political action, paramilitary activity and psychological warfare.


Fomentation of rebel movements has a long history in warfare, as have assassination plots against foreign leaders and propaganda campaigns.


Covert operations refer to any paramilitary or political action that is secretly sponsored by a government agency but carried out by another organization. Its aim is to allow the sponsor to claim plausible deniability. The term is derived from the Latin verb covrir, meaning “to cover” or conceal.

The history of covert operations is complex and varied. Some are military, such as the supply of experts to American partisans in the Revolutionary War or British commando raids into Boer South Africa. Others are political, such as the support of guerillas in the Spanish Civil War or a secret campaign to encourage German opposition to the Second World War.

During the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies were given nearly carte blanche for covert actions. They were to oppose not just communist adversaries but also authoritarian political systems in general.

In many cases the agencies would cooperate with and provide cover to private groups that were seeking democratic institutions and values. It was thought that this might help the operations remain covert for longer.

However, if the group was not seen to have a high moral standard then it would be difficult for an operation to stay undercover for very long. Furthermore, the groups themselves often became politicized and this added a further layer of complexity to any future covert operations they might undertake.


There are many different techniques for carrying out covert operations. They can involve political action, paramilitary activity, psychological warfare, or economic warfare. The use of a false flag or front group may also be included in an operation.

One of the key aspects of a successful covert operation is its ability to avoid detection. This is accomplished by avoiding overt signals, such as radios, and by using clandestine methods of communication. The latter include “brush passes,” where an operative discreetly gives another the physical item needed for an operation (often in a public place and preferably with a crowd to obfuscate any visual surveillance). Several other important techniques involve disguising physical movements.

Fomenting rebellions and supporting other power’s coups d’etat have long been part of warfare, with examples including British plotting with royalist agents against Napoleon, German machinations in Mexico, Persia, and Turkey (1800-1804), and the scheming by various countries in World War I (1939-1945). More recently, the recruitment and employment of mercenaries as a form of paramilitary activity has been common; it was used for example in the Philippines during World War II and by the United States in Vietnam and Laos from 1954 to 1956 and in Indonesia and Tibet from 1958 to 1960.

Although a president is generally responsible for the overall direction of covert activities, he or she often leaves specific decisions to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and his or her staff. Depending on the complexity of a project, it may require the approval of an intelligence advisory committee or a presidential task force.


Covert operations, whether violent or not, are designed to create a situation in another country that is suited to the intervening power’s goals. This can be done by sabotage, the insertion of agents into critical positions in foreign governments or military organizations, or paramilitary support for an insurgency against an opposing government. The goal is to accomplish the mission without exposing the sponsor’s identity, which allows “plausible deniability” in case the operation goes wrong.

Because they are secret, covert actions do not undergo the rigorous review and debate that is a hallmark of democratic societies. They also can be more expensive, since they require a larger budget to carry out and must be vetted by fewer people. As a result, they tend to be riskier than overt missions and are more likely to go wrong.

Moreover, the need to keep covert action confidential can make it difficult to glean data about its scope and degree of success. This problem is compounded by the fact that the intelligence agencies that conduct covert operations (and the special-forces units that are sometimes involved) are often reluctant to share information with congressional committees, whose leaders may be less inclined to take the risks of openly discussing the operations. This is in part because the committees would have to be briefed in a very short amount of time.


The success of covert actions is notoriously hard to judge. This article develops a new framework for evaluating covert action by distilling competing criteria and exploring how covert operations become perceived as successes. It uses the example of Project AZORIAN – the audacious six year mission to recover the USS ‘Rivanger’ and unlock its secrets.

By focusing on perceptions rather than objective, empirical measures, this approach decentralises power and opens space for considering how covert action might be used – as well as how it is defended against. Recognising that evaluation is a social construct enables more nuanced analysis of the impact of covert action and helps challenge the dominance of Anglo-centrism in intelligence studies.

Covert action is not a one-size-fits-all tool of state power and it works alongside more open measures such as diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and military threats. This can make it difficult to determine whether a covert operation has achieved its goals and the extent of its success – or failure. Furthermore, overplaying the success of a covert operation can generate paranoia and hysteria and damage public faith in the state’s own democratic institutions. This was certainly the case after 2016 when a series of Russian attempts to influence US presidential elections led to conspiracy theories and widespread distrust. This must be guarded against by ensuring that covert operations are in line with the broader foreign policy objectives of the state.