Gregory F. Treverton
The use of covert action has caused deep divisions in the United States, ones that seem likely to outlive the end of the Cold War. On one hand, America's opponents, especially its former mortal foe, the Soviet Union, have not always played by Marquis of Queensberry rules; countering them has thus compelled the U.S. government to act in ways just as nasty as they act. On the other hand, if doing so entails violating principles that the nation holds dear, the United States risks looking no different than those enemies.1
Absent the Soviet bear, the national security grounds for covert operations may erode, but the world will still seem a dangerous place where democracy's enemies continue to resort to unsavory tactics. Covert actions--including paramilitary operations or secret warfare--will in all likelihood remain on the agenda, and with them the question: can they be squared with open democracy at an acceptable price, which in turn requires asking, how effective have they been?
Over the last two decades the Executive branch and Congress have argued their way toward a means of handling secret operations between the two branches. That process has meant that Congress is, most of the time and paradoxically, more a partner in decisions about secret warfare than about open uses of force. The War Powers Resolution (WPR), enacted to deal with the latter is widely agreed to have been a failure; indeed, the WPR resulted from and contributed to precisely what it was intended to avoid--a built-in confrontation between the branches. Yet the existing process for handling covert warfare stops well short of open deliberation in advance of the decision to act. Nonetheless, I would suggest that we cannot expect to do much better, and that indeed it may be unwise to try.
This chapter focuses on "covere" paramilitary action, supposedly secret operations designed to provide military aid and training to foreign parties, generally though not always on a large scale. This discussion excludes covert political actions, which are by far the largest type of covert action; political actions attempt