AMU Homeland Security Opinion

The Realities of Covert Action Review and Approval Process

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By Miller J. Wilson
William J. Daugherty makes some good points in his paper but I would have to disagree with him. The review process for covert actions fails on many levels and for many reasons. Some of these reasons include the sheer number of people who are briefed about actions, the lack of punitive actions against Congressmen/women who leak information, and the belief that somehow it is impossible that an action could not be taken without a Presidential Finding or Congressional approval. I shall discuss each point and why it causes the review process to fail below.

Let us start by discussing the first problem which is the sheer number of people who have knowledge of a covert action. As Daugherty states, “the total number of witting persons on Capitol Hill was no longer small, for selected committee staff were also read into the programs.” (Daugherty 2004 P.64) This increase of the number of people who have knowledge about a cover action 1) takes away any form of “plausible deniability”, which is one of the reasons for a covert action, if it is discovered and 2) increases the chances of the covert action being discovered either by accidental or intentional leaks, which is counter to the idea of covertness. The commonly understood definition of “covert” is to be secret or secretive. Common sense tells us that the more people who have knowledge about something the less secret it is and so by increasing the number of people who are briefed by a covert action the less covert it becomes.
The next problem of the review process for covert actions is the lack of punitive actions against Congressmen/women who leak information. This is evidenced by Daugherty when he states, “And finally, a less-than-respectable but just as effective ”last resort veto” could be achieved simply by leaking the existence of the Finding to the press,” as there is currently no law that prevents or punishes members of Congress who chose to go this route despite the fact that doing so can and does put allies, whether other states or individuals, in danger as evidenced by the threats or terrorists against nations which housed “US Secret Prisons” after that information was leaked. (Daugherty 2004 P.65)
Finally, Daugherty believes so strongly that “rogue actions” are impossible that he devotes an entire section explaining why they are impossible. (Daugherty 2004 P76) Not only does this belief remove any form of “plausible deniability”, one of the main reasons for covert actions, but it ignores the reality that they have happened even with the review process as evidenced by the Iran-Contra affair and the “Enhanced Interrogations” controversy (if we are to believe Congressional Leaders who deny about having knowledge or being briefed about both.) It seems highly unlikely that an intelligence agency, which trains personnel to set up shell companies and hide involvement in activities, would be unable to set up shell companies or siphon funds from one project to pay for another project undetected when the same tactics are successfully employed everyday by private sector companies and criminal organizations. Again I must point to the Iran-Contra affair as evidence that this has happened in the past.
Though there are other problems with the review process these three are the most prominent which prevent it from being effective. The large number of people given knowledge of covert actions increases the chance of leaks and removes “plausible deniability”, both of which are key components to covert actions. The ability of Members of Congress to leak information for personal or political reasons without any punitive action also puts all covert actions at risk and puts our allies in danger. Finally the review process is merely a façade that allows Members of Congress to believe that they have authority and control of covert actions even though this control is limited by the professionalism and willingness of the IC to be open, honest, and willing participants. The reality of the review process is that Members of Congress use it as a political tool to either embarrass opponents or use as leverage for their political gain while failing to see that the IC has the ability and resources to simply disregard it at anytime of their choosing even if this is unlikely.
Daugherty, William J. 2004. Approval and Review of Covert Action Since Reagan. International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Tailor & Francis Group. Internet. Hosted by American Military University. [accessed: 06/03/09].
Pelosi Briefed in 2002 About Enhanced Interrogation Methods, accessed 06/07/2009
Miller J. Wilson is currently an AMU student working on his BA in Intelligence Operations. In addition he is a volunteer for his local Medical Reserve Corps and Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT).

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