When Might a “Secret” Intelligence Operation or Covert Action Be the Most Appropriate Action to Take?

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When a foreign policy objective needs to be accomplished and diplomatic pressure is inadequate due to a country’s unwillingness to cooperate, and a military approach may generate unwanted attention or retaliation covert action may be the best choice.

An example of this primary consideration is during the Cold War when the United States government would frequently turn to covert action when diplomacy with a hostile government, such as the Soviet Union was too weak. Conversely, military action also could not be used as the Soviets, had substantial forces in Europe, and after 1949, they also possessed nuclear weaponry. The risk of retaliation given these odds was too substantial as it may have resulted in too high a loss of resources to the United States.

However, covert action is not a “magic spell”, a number of factors need to be considered. An infrastructure for the covert action must be developed and assessed to determine if covert action is indeed feasible. To understand what factors must be considered when deciding if to use covert action, it should be remembered that plausible deniability is the key factor which distinguishes covert action from overt actions.

Firstly the cost of using this method must be looked at, does the benefits outweigh the cost. In this scenario, the cost that is being referred to is the loss of trust by other governments and/or the public if covert operation is discovered. Additionally while, this option offers expediency and flexibility as officials need not explain their plan to the public or allies it also lessens the resources that can be accessed. So it must be determined if the operation is achievable without these resources and ally intelligence.

Secondly, consideration must be given to if performing the operation overtly would make it infeasible? Would the knowledge of a government's participation change the desired outcome or outright negatively affect the policy objective? For example, if voters in Italy knew that...
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