Intelligence, Legitimacy, and Covert Operations

The Legitimacy of and Issues Related to Covert Activities

Debates about the legality and morality of covert operations by intelligence bodies have been raging since the Cold War days. After the terror attacks of September 11, the Pentagon resolved to pursue the agenda of taking the war to the enemies, the action rekindling the discussions that revolved around the cold war era. Admittedly, there is an impetus buoyed by the May 2011 Navy Seals’ successful attack on Osama bin Laden. There is an increase in such activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, which entails infiltrating terrorist units, among other actions. The actions entail part of the wider strategies employed to neutralize the U.S. adversaries in the middle east.

Shortly after 9/11, former President George W. Bush signed a presidential finding. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), the discovery gave the CIA authority to pursue anyone suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda worldwide. The authorization also prepared the GST program; the GST program permits the CIA to use illegal interrogation techniques and maintain secret prisons overseas. The CIA provided military training to local armed groups and used them as proxies as the U.S. planned to pursue the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The CIA was also involved in attacking adversaries in Pakistan and Yemen using drone missiles, raising questions about the legitimacy of its actions. These issues, therefore, provide ground to reconsider the legality of covert operations.

Constitutional and Political Legality

One of the complexities of covert operations in the United States is how they coincide with the requirements of democracy which require openness and involvement of many people. The U.S deals with covert operations peculiarly, and a brief history will be adequate to explain the matter. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), the passing of the National Security Act of 1947 initiated the transfer of all authority concerning covert operations, by Congress, to the President. From 1973 to 2005, the CIA managed covert operations under different names, the current one being National Clandestine Service. The Congress, which represents Americans’ voice, did not oversee covert operations before the 1970s due to the consensus that the President preserved the domain.

The principle of “plausible deniability supported the stance of the Congress”; Congress assumed that the CIA would carry out its activities in a manner that minimized risks and maximized benefits. However, after several blunders, Congress’ faith in the presidency deteriorated, and it became more involved in the operations. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), the passing of the Hughes-Ryan legislation in 1974 marked the start of Congress’ involvement in covert operations. The legislation prohibited expenditure on covert operations unless the President ascertained the importance of the process and provided findings to the relevant congressional committees. Consequently, it gave powers to Congress to intervene in case the President made a wrong decision on covert action.

Despite the increased transparency over the years since 1974, there is no clear or reasonable method of carrying out a cost-benefit analysis for covert operations. Therefore, they remain genuinely presidential, with the President being the ultimate decision-maker on the issue, which may exclude collective wisdom, true expertise, and proper risk assessment. There is the possibility of the President signing an uninterrogated finding, then looking for ways to avoid the scrutiny of the oversight bodies in Congress, undermining its authority. Also, the law does not specify the amount of information the President can disclose to Congress, increasing presidential discretion. The President should never bypass Congress because it acts to ensure the democratic principles of the American people are intact throughout the operations.

Another emerging issue is the increasingly blurred distinctions between the CIA’s intelligence-gathering activities and the Department of Defenses’ clandestine operations. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), people criticized the administration of President Bush for knowingly transferring the responsibilities of the CIA to the military to bypass Congress. The DoD has also avoided the oversight of Congress, a matter that does not sit well with the legislative body’s intelligence committees. These issues bring to the fore the tussle to legitimize covert operations in the U.S. intelligence circles by upholding the principles of democracy.

In conclusion, covert operations are part and parcel of enhancing security in the United States of America. Even though Congress stayed aloof from the ongoings and permitted the President to have the sole discretion in handling the issues related to clandestine operations earlier, it became more involved after 1974. Congress has continued to act as a watchdog and a people’s representative in ensuring that the powers given to the President are not misused.

How Intelligence Was and Was Not Used for The Benghazi Incident

Covert operations can sometimes go wrong, as shown by the incident at Benghazi, where an American installation was attacked, and some personnel lost their lives. There were accusations about the inadequacies and blunders by the intelligence operatives, led by the CIA, in handling the issue. A committee was set up to investigate the problem, and its conclusions give a glimpse of intelligence successes and lapses during that period. According to Entman and Stonbely (2018), on the use of intelligence in the Benghazi incident, the CIA provided adequate security for its Benghazi facilities and helped the State Department save lives during the incident. The personnel gathered intelligence and used them to make reasonable tactical decisions. However, the State Department security did not have adequate equipment, resources, and personnel to repulse the attackers and therefore required the assistance of the CIA.

Secondly, according to the report, there was no failure in intelligence before the attacks. According to Entman and Stonbely (2018), the CIA provided intelligence about past episodes. They also warned about the increasing likelihood of being attacked in Benghazi; it failed to provide tactical and specific warnings concerning the attacks. Other findings from the committee were that intelligence did not correctly identify the motivations, affiliations, and identities of the attackers of the U.S. facilities in Benghazi.

Moreover, the intelligence was not correctly used after the attacks leading to inaccurate information surrounding the entire thing. According to Entman and Stonbely (2018), the intelligence briefs and the initial public announcements concerning the motivation and causes of the terror attack contained some inaccurate information. The stream of intelligent information coming in after the attack was conflicting and contradicting. Initially, the CIA’s intelligence reports concluded that the attack developed from a protest. However, contrary intelligence showed that there was no protest at all. The report also found that the process used in generating Ambassador’s talking points during her public addresses was flawed. Also, the report found no evidence that the CIA engaged in illegitimate covert operations in Benghazi.

The History and Evolution of Soviet-Era Maskirovka

The Maskirovka is a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon in Russia that entails deception necessary for achieving military and political objectives. According to (Maier, 2016), initially, the Russians employed it to create a false impression of reality to surprise their enemies and gain an advantage on the battlefield. Even though the surprise is a vital element of the Maskirovka, it does not explain how Russia employs deception in modern conflict. Instead of relying on concealment to affect surprise, it now emphasizes creating uncertainty and ambiguity and controlling the responses of potential enemies. In the future, the Russian Army will likely employ the tactic to create tension in its enemies to enable the Russians to act freely.

The U.S. military conceives deception as simply a ruse employed to fool an adversary; the Russian Army and the Russian government conceptualize it as a combination of operational security, denial, concealment, disinformation, and camouflage. According to Maier (2016), Maskirovka has played a significant role in the Russian Army since the second world war. Russia uses it to conceal its political and military activities and to take part in covert military actions. Deception is an indispensable part of operational art, war, and warfare for the Russian military and political class.

The intervening time between the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation provided the latter with ample time and space to develop its operational concepts from the relics of the former. In this intervening period, the United States did not expand its Russian propaganda concepts. According to Maier (2016), Russian fined tuned its ideas as it fought against its neighbors, updating and modifying the concepts it picked from the Soviet Union and fusing them with new technology. In recent times, Russia has employed the idea during the annexation of Crimea, conflict in Georgia, and Eastern Ukraine, to create favorable conditions for its military maneuver.

There is a threefold objective of the Maskirovka: surprising the enemy, creating the possibility to control the enemy’s actions, and preserving combat power. According to Maier (2016), a surprise is vital for the Russians in their military actions. To a large extent, the success of a military operation depends on the unexpectedness of its activities. The Russians believe that secret preparations and surprise attacks are the prerequisites to striking a decisive blow on the adversary.

Secondly, Maskirovka must mislead the enemy into making inappropriate decisions and taking the wrong action. Like the reflexive control theory, Maskirovka works on two domains: the human-mental and the computer decision-making processes. According to Maier (2016), automatic control influences an individual or a system to act voluntarily in a manner that they would otherwise not act. Maskirovka employs falsehood that affects the actions of its target by playing on its preconceived notions, experience, morals, psychology, and personality. Lastly, by misdirecting the enemy weapons, maskirovka assists increase the chances of survival on the battlefield.

The Ethical and Moral Issues in Intelligence

The other issue concerning covert operations is whether they are moral and ethical. While some opine those covert operations infringe on the freedoms of other nations and therefore are not ethical, others deem it necessary. According to Tarif (2015), scholars argue that covert operations can be viewed through just war doctrine. According to the philosophy, jus ad Bellum deals with whether the reasons for conducting the covert operations are moral, and jus in bello deals with whether the way of conducting the covert operations is ethical. Therefore, the legitimacy of a covert operation depends on how it aligns with the theory of just war.

According to the doctrine of just war, if a legitimate authority undertakes a covert operation, then it is moral. Moreover, the clandestine operation is justified if conducted for self-defense due to an imminent attack. According to Tarif (2015), the operation should pursue a legal objective, be the last resort, and be moderate and proportional to the imminent danger. Moreover, the prospect of succeeding must be severe, and the damage to innocent people is minimal. Furthermore, the CIA must carefully weigh the consequences of the operation to ensure it does not cause harm and suffering more than the threat it was trying to eliminate.

The American people consider a covert action moral if it is a just cause. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), during the cold war, for instance, the American public considered the USSR a threat, and the members of Congress agreed on the need to increase spending on defense and covert actions. When America launched a clandestine operation in Afghanistan to support the Mujahidin fighting the Soviets, there was no national uproar. The American people considered it a just cause because it responded to Soviet expansionism, a significant concern. In summary, according to the thinking of the Americans, “the end justifies the means.” In other words, it is generally justified to undertake a covert operation if it entails the national security of the U.S.; the threats require a robust response.

There are times when American policymakers resorted to more preventive than curative motivations for their covert operations. For example, even though the communists were not yet in Latin America, the U.S. government knew that at some point, they would take over and convert countries into communism. The executive, therefore, used covert operations to counter the likelihood of communists taking over, but there was no actual threat to counter. Also, when Allende of Chile was overthrown, there was no reason because he did not threaten any direct interest of the United States, and it was not the last resort that the U.S. could take to avert the perceived threat.

Another factor that determines whether a covert action is ethical is the nature of the targeted enemy. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), the American public is more likely to accept a clandestine action against a hostile government than its democratic or neutral counterparts. Some the American people consider risky attempts to amend a democratic nation’s policies are covert actions. Such measures have the possibility of causing severe internal conflicts and diplomatic spats, which could cause the trust of the population in the government to wane.

Covert actions against democratic governments contradict the principle of democracy that states that they should be in a position to resolve their problems through compromises and negotiations. Also, if the CIA acts against a nation’s sovereignty and interferes with internal affairs, it goes against the basic principle of international theory, which posits that a country has the right to freedom from foreign interference. The U.S. does not seem to keep its word concerning these principles, and the CIA has forwarded the argument that they can conduct covert actions for the sake of counterterrorism in nations that cannot be able to enforce their sovereignty.

There are also times when the principle of legitimate goals can legitimize an operation. For instance, the U.S can use acts to promote democracy, for example, by helping in overthrowing a government. However, how things have turned out seems to contradict the theory of the installation of democracy as a legitimate goal for covert operations. According to Banka and Quinn (2018), history demonstrates that it is doomed to fail whenever external forces impose democracy. It is difficult to point out a success story of a democracy that emerged from activities supported by covert actions. On the contrary, covert operations have placed many authoritarian regimes in power fiercely repressed and violated human rights; examples are Chile, Indonesia, and Guatemala. It is, therefore, absurd to remove governments from power through covert actions, however good the justification is.

The Unusual Relationship Among the Five Eyes Nations

The Five Eyes nations are composed of the U.S, U.K, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, uniquely known as the only countries that share classified information, equally integrate staff across their different intelligence agencies, and gather intelligence. According to O’Neil (2017), one of the unusual things about this alliance is that no public document explains the blueprint of their agreement. It is, therefore, difficult to describe its dimensions and scope. The National Security Agency and the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) have their analysts integrated into each other’s headquarters and maintain an informal division of labor. The agencies have exchange visits at all levels, down from the directorate.

The sharing of signals intelligence (SIGINT) products from the two agencies are so widespread that customers find it hard to tell the country that generates them. According to O’Neil (2017), the 1946 UKUSA Agreement cemented the relationship by noting that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand must be members of the alliance, not third parties. Since governments are unlikely to cooperate in international intelligence, this global intelligence alliance is an oxymoron and defies the logic of intelligence operations. It is not unique, but it is much deeper than any other formal alliance in the world presently. The cooperation between the Five Eyes is also unusual because the U.S. shares with its members very important information that it cannot even share with its geographical neighbors.


Banka, A., & Quinn, A. (2018). Killing Norms Softly: U.S. Targeted Killing, Quasi-secrecy and the Assassination Ban. Security Studies, 27(4), 665-703. Web.

Entman, R., & Stonbely, S. (2018). Blunders, Scandals, and Strategic Communication in U.S. Foreign Policy: Benghazi vs. 9/11. International Journal Of Communication, 12, 3024–3047. Web.

Maier, M. (2016). A Little Masquerade: Russia’s Evolving Employment of Maskirovka: A Monograph [Ebook]. School of Advanced Military Studies United States Army Command and General Staff College. Web.

O’Neil, A. (2017). Australia and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network: the perils of an asymmetric alliance. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 71(5), 529-543. Web.

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