Gary M. Sternand Morton H. Halperin
The Iran-Contra affair was the most recent demonstration of the deep incongruity and danger that unauthorized covert action poses in a democracy. In a country founded on the principle of a shared foreign affairs power, the President has come to assert a unilateral authority over all use or support of military force by the United States, especially through covert action. The officials who ran the Iran-Contra affair completely bypassed every democratic check placed upon the Executive branch. This abuse by the Reagan Administration suggests that we take another look at the role of such activities in U.S. foreign policy.
The term "covert action" comprises a range of activities, from those verging on diplomacy to those verging on war. This chapter focuses exclusively on covert paramilitary actions, or "secret wars"--clandestine activities intended to provide lethal support to participants in a foreign military conflict without officially revealing the role of the United States. We argue that maintaining the official "deniability" of such actions serves no necessary foreign policy objective while it significantly undermines a fundamental constitutional check on Executive branch action. Accordingly, we propose that the officially "covert" aspect of such activities be eliminated by requiring prior congressional authorization in accordance with procedures that should be followed for overt wars.
Over the last few decades, Presidents have come to use covert action largely to avoid congressional involvement; they fear that Congress will ask too many questions and might actually oppose the operation. Robert McFarlane said it pointedly when he testified at the Iran-Contra hearings: the President and his advisors "turned to covert action [in Nicaragua] because they thought they could not get Congressional support for overt activities."2 Yet it is rarely the case that