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Covert Intervention as a Moral Problem

  • Charles R. Beitz (a1)

Today's international community may well view covert action and democracy as mutually exclusive policies. This article examines the practice of covert action in American foreign policy in light of events of the mid-1970s and 1980s, focusing on the scandalous misuse of executive authority and lack of accountability associated with covert means. Often manipulative and sometimes anonymous, covert operations raise critical morality concerns in a democratic society. Whether “any form of accountability is likely to be sufficient to bring the unauthorized use of executive power under control” is the crucial issue to be addressed when examining the practicality of covert actions by the executive branch.

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1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at a faculty workshop on Ethics and Covert Action at Cornell University that was sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. I am grateful to the participants for their comments and suggestions.

2 On the background, legality, and efficacy of covert action, see U.S. Congress, Senate Select Committee to Study …Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee), Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book I, Senate Report No. 94–755, 94th Cong., 2d Sess., Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, April 26, 1976, chapter 8. The best study is Treverton Gregory F., Covert Action (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

3 I have excluded from this list the covert activities carried out by the CIA during the Korean and Indochinese wars because these were operations in direct support of military activities rather than free-standing, peacetime initiatives like the others.

4 For the details of these cases, see Treverton, op. cit., and Prados John, Presidents' Secret Wars (New York: William Morrow, 1986).

5 See Oseth John M., Regulating U.S. Intelligence Operations: A Study in Definition of the National Interest (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985) pp. 2527.

6 For example, Tom Wicker, “Not Covert, Not Smart, Not Right,” in The New York Times, August 2, 1988, p. A19.

7 In fact, intervention is best denned simply as “coercive external interference in the affairs of a population organized in the form of a state.” The best recent discussion is McMahan Jefferson, “The Ethics of International Intervention,” in Political Realism and International Morality, ed. Kipnis Kenneth and Meyers Diana T. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987) p. 78.

8 For example, Michael Walzer's view in Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977) chapter 6.

9 Tovar Hugh, “Covert Action,” in Intelligence Requirements for the 1980s: Elements of Intelligence, ed. Godson Roy (Washington, D.C.: National Strategy Information Center, 1979) p. 69.

10 Quoted in Treverton , Covert Action, p. 11.

11 There is a good discussion in Treverton, ibid., chapters 5–6.

12 William Colby advances one form of this argument in “Public Policy, Secret Action,” elsewhere in this journal. He says that covert action should meet the test of “self-defense.” His extremely elastic interpretation of this idea illustrates that the cautions set forth above about the ambiguities of the national interest also apply to self-defense.

13 The locus classicus is Arnold Wolfers, “National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol,” in Discord and Collaboration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962) pp. 147–66.

14 Rubin Barry, Paved With Good Intentions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) pp. 5490; Prados, Presidents' Secret Wars, pp. 92–98.

15 Eisenhower Dwight D., The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953–1956 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963) pp. 162–64.

16 See the discussion in Cottam Richard W., Nationalism in Iran (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964) p. 230.

17 In addition to Colby's remarks in “Public Policy, Secret Action,” in this issue, See Nixon Richard, 7999: Victory Without War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) p. 109; and Barrett Michael J., “Honorable Espionage II,”Journal of Defense and Diplomacy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (March 1984) p. 14. (Barrett was assistant general counsel of the CIA at the time this article was written.)

18 Robert Goodin defines manipulation as “power exercised 1) deceptively and 2) against the putative will of its objects.”Manipulatory Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) p. 8.

19 Ibid., p. 7.

20 Joel Rudinow makes a similar point in “Manipulation,”Ethics, Vol. 88 (1978) p. 347.

21 For example, by the Church Committee, Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book I, p. 131.

22 Prados , Presidents' Secret Wars, pp. 315–21.

23 William Colby with Forbath Peter, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978) pp. 113–14.

24 See, for example, the generally cautious assessment in Trevor Barnes, “The Secret Cold War: The C.I.A. and American Foreign Policy in Europe, 1946–1956,” part I, Historical Journal, Vol. 24 (1981) pp. 412–13; and part II, ibid., Vol. 25 (1982) pp. 660–64.

25 Covert Action, p. 222. Similarly, the Church Committee reported itself “struck by the basic tension—if not incompatibility—of covert operations and the demands of a constitutional system.”Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book 1, p. 156.

26 For a discussion of the new intelligence regime in the context of the broader adjustment of executive/congressional relations of which it was a part, See Sharpe Kenneth E., “The Post-Vietnam Formula Under Siege: The Imperial Presidency and Central America,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 102 (1987) pp. 549–69.

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Ethics & International Affairs
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