Exposing the myths of America’s shadow war

Dr. Loch K. Johnson writes: The United States faces a world of constantly shifting circumstances, as underscored by the Arab Spring uprisings. To shield the nation in a global setting where uncertainty and hostilities are commonplace, officials in Washington have crafted a range of responses to international events that includes diplomacy and the use of armed force. The most hidden and least understood of these responses is covert action — a tightly held operational secret in the U.S. government. This secrecy has yielded several myths that have misled the American people about a controversial, and sometimes lethal, approach to foreign policy.

MYTH #1: The meaning of covert action is clearly delineated.

With the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1991, the government did craft a formal statutory definition of covert action as “an activity or activities of the United States government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United State Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Put simply, covert action attempts to influence world events through the secret use of propaganda, political, economic, and paramilitary activities. The concept of “secret influence” is spongy, though, and can blur the distinction between activities carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or by the military. Take the training of foreign covert forces by U.S. Special Operations Forces. The SOF consists of soldiers out of uniform, acting on an unacknowledged basis — precisely the kind of operation engaged in by the CIA. By calling such activities “traditional military operations,” the Pentagon is able to sidestep the legal procedures for reporting covert actions to Congress.

MYTH #2: Covert action offers a quiet approach to America’s foreign relations.

An appealing aspect of covert action is the promise that it may allow the United States to address vexing problems overseas in a quiet manner. Indeed, one of the euphemisms for covert action is “the quiet option.” Yet consider such CIA operations as the failed attempt in 1961 to overthrow the Castro regime with an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs; or the use of mines to blow up shipping in Nicaraguan harbors during the Reagan administration. Nothing quiet about these “secret” activities. Today drones can fly silently, but there is nothing quiet about the explosions of Hellfire missiles as they strike targets on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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