Blowback (intelligence)

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Blowback is the unintended consequences and unwanted side-effects of a covert operation. To the civilians suffering the blowback of covert operations, the effect typically manifests itself as "random" acts of political violence without a discernible, direct cause; because the public—in whose name the intelligence agency acted—are unaware of the effected secret attacks that provoked revenge (counter-attack) against them.[1]


Originally, blowback was CIA internal coinage denoting the unintended, harmful consequences—to friendly populations and military forces—when a given weapon is used beyond its purpose as intended by the party supplying it. Examples include anti-Western religious figures (e.g. Osama bin Laden) who, in due course, attack foe and sponsor; right-wing counter-revolutionaries who sell drugs to their sponsor's civil populace (see CIA and Contras cocaine trafficking in the US); and banana republic juntas (see Salvadoran Civil War) who kill American reporters or nuns (e.g. Dorothy Kazel).[2]

In formal print usage, the term blowback first appeared in the Clandestine Service History—Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran—November 1952–August 1953, the CIA's internal history of the 1953 Iranian coup d'état, sponsored by the American and British governments, which was published in March 1954.[3][4] Blowback from this operation would indeed occur with the Iranian Revolution and the Iran hostage crisis. Recent accounts of how blowback functioned in the War on Terror relation to US and UK intelligence and defense propaganda and became an important issue in a 21st Century media environment are discussed by Emma Briant in her book Propaganda and Counter-terrorism which presents first-hand accounts and discussions of deliberate and unintended consequences of blowback, oversight, and impacts for the public.[5][6]


Nicaragua and Iran-Contra[edit]

In the 1980s, the blowback was a central theme in the legal and political debates about the efficacy of the Reagan Doctrine, which advocated public and secret support of anti-Communist counter-revolutionaries. For example, by secretly funding the secret war of the militarily-defeated, right-wing Contras against the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which led to the Iran–Contra Affair, wherein the Reagan Administration sold American weapons to Iran (a state unfriendly to the US) to arm the Contras with Warsaw Pact weapons, and their consequent drug-dealing in American cities.[7] Moreover, in the case of Nicaragua v. United States, the International Court of Justice ruled against the United States secret military attacks against Sandinista Nicaragua, because the countries were not formally at war.

Reagan Doctrine advocates, including The Heritage Foundation, argued that support for anti-Communists would topple Communist régimes without retaliatory consequences to the United States and help win the global Cold War.[citation needed]

Afghanistan and Al Qaeda[edit]

Examples of blowback include the CIA's financing and support for Afghan insurgents to fight an anti-Communist proxy guerilla war against the USSR in Afghanistan; some of the beneficiaries of this CIA support may have joined al-Qaeda's terrorist campaign against the United States.[8]

Syria and ISIS[edit]

During the Syrian Civil War, the United States and Saudi Arabia supported and aided anti-Assad armed groups.[9][10] Some of those groups later shifted loyalty to ISIS.[11]

Yevno Azef and Russian Imperial secret police[edit]

Russian socialist revolutionary Yevno Azef, as a paid police informant, provided the Russian secret-police Okhrana with information to allow them to arrest an influential member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. After the arrest, Azef assumed the vacant position and organized assassinations, including those of the director of Imperial Russia's police and later Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Plehve (1904) and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the Tsar's uncle (1905). By 1908, Azef was playing the double role of a revolutionary assassin and police spy who received 1000 rubles a month from the authorities.

Soviet disinformation blowback[edit]

Soviet intelligence, as part of active measures, frequently spread disinformation to distort their adversaries' decision-making. However, sometimes this information filtered back through the KGB's own contacts, leading to distorted reports.[12] Lawrence Bittman also addressed Soviet intelligence blowback in The KGB and Soviet Disinformation, stating that "There are, of course, instances in which the operator is partially or completely exposed and subjected to countermeasures taken by the government of the target country."[13]

See also[edit]



  • Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson, ISBN 0-8050-6239-4
  1. ^ Blowback The Nation
  2. ^ Larry Rother (April 3, 1998). "4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military". New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved May 15, 2017.
  3. ^ Risen, James (18 June 2000). "WORD FOR WORD/ABC'S OF COUPS; Oh, What a Fine Plot We Hatched. (And Here's What to Do the Next Time)". The New York Times.
  4. ^ IngentaConnect American Militarism and Blowback: The Costs of Letting the Pentagon Dominate Foreign Policy
  5. ^ Briant, Emma (2015). Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-9105-6.
  6. ^ Briant (April 2015). "Allies and Audiences Evolving Strategies in Defense and Intelligence Propaganda". The International Journal of Press/Politics. 20 (2): 145–165. doi:10.1177/1940161214552031. S2CID 145697213.
  7. ^ Evans-Pritchard, Ambrose (1994) "Smugglers linked to Contra arms deals," The Telegraph plc.
  8. ^ Context of '1986-1992: CIA and British Recruit and Train Militants Worldwide to Help Fight Afghan War' Archived 2008-09-12 at the Wayback Machine, History Commons.
  9. ^ Official says CIA-funded weapons have begun to reach Syrian rebels; rebels deny receipt, CNN.
  10. ^ Saudi edges Qatar to control Syrian rebel support Archived 2015-10-01 at the Wayback Machine, Reuters.
  11. ^ 'Thank God for the Saudis': ISIS, Iraq, and the Lessons of Blowback, The Atlantic.
  12. ^ Garthoff, Raymond L. (2015-08-15). Soviet Leaders and Intelligence: Assessing the American Adversary during the Cold War. Georgetown University Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-62616-230-3.
  13. ^ Bittman, Ladislav (1985), The KGB and Soviet Disinformation: An Insider's View, Pergamon-Brassey's, pp. 49–52, ISBN 978-0-08-031572-0