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Secret but Constrained: The Impact of Elite Opposition on Covert Operations

  • Gregory L. Smith


Recent international relations scholarship has argued that political elites constrain the use of military force by democracies. Despite the persuasiveness of this research, scholars have largely ignored elite dynamics’ ability to constrain the initiation of covert operations. This omission is consequential because scholars of US foreign policy often assume that covert operations serve as a substitute for the overt use of force; secrecy allows leaders to limit information to congressional elites and thus weaken their oversight capabilities. Do elite political dynamics constrain presidents’ ability to act secretly or do they affect the overt use of force only? I argue that elite political constraints—particularly opposition from Congress—extend to the president's ability to initiate covert operations. By examining the trade-off between US military force and CIA-initiated covert operations during the Cold War, I find the likelihood that covert operations are initiated decreases significantly during periods of divided government and that there is no distinguishable trade-off between covert operations and overt military force. The results suggest that constraints on covert operations became more uniform across unified and divided government following congressional oversight reforms in 1975 that reduced the information asymmetry between the majority and minority party. These findings have important ramifications for the nascent literature on back-door bargaining and covert signalling. Because democratic leaders frequently face domestic political costs even when acting in secret, covert operations should allow leaders to credibly convey their resolve.

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