According to the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a covert operation (also as CoveOps or covert ops) is "an operation that is so planned and executed as to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor." It is intended to create a political effect which can have implications in the military, intelligence or law enforcement arenas. Covert operations aim to fulfill their mission objectives without any parties knowing who sponsored or carried out the operation.
Under United States law, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) must lead covert operations unless the president finds that another agency should do so and properly informs the Congress. Normally, the CIA is the US Government agency legally allowed to carry out covert action. The CIA's authority to conduct covert action comes from the National Security Act of 1947. President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333 titled United States Intelligence Activities in 1984. This order defined covert action as "special activities", both political and military, that the US Government could legally deny. The CIA was also designated as the sole authority under the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act and in Title 50 of the United States Code Section 413(e). The CIA must have a "Presidential Finding" issued by the President of the United States in order to conduct these activities under the Hughes-Ryan amendment to the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act. These findings are then monitored by the oversight committees in both the US Senate and the House of Representatives. As a result of this framework, the CIA "receives more oversight from the Congress than any other agency in the federal government". The Special Activities Division (SAD) is a division of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, responsible for Covert Action and "Special Activities". These special activities include covert political influence and paramilitary operations. The division is overseen by the United States Secretary of State.
Undercover operations (such as sting operations or infiltration of organized crime groups) are conducted by law enforcement agencies to deter and detect crime and to gather information for future arrest and prosecution.
Military intelligence and foreign policy
Covert operations and clandestine operations are distinct. The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Joint Publication JP1-02), defines "covert operation" as "an operation that is so planned and executed as to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor. A covert operation differs from a clandestine operation in that emphasis is placed on concealment of identity of sponsor rather than on concealment of the operation." The United States Department of Defense definition has been used by the United States and NATO since World War II.
In a covert operation, the identity of the sponsor is concealed, while in a clandestine operation the operation itself is concealed. Put differently, clandestine means "hidden," while covert means "deniable." The term stealth refers both to a broad set of tactics aimed at providing and preserving the element of surprise and reducing enemy resistance and to a set of technologies (stealth technology) to aid in those tactics. While secrecy and stealthiness are often desired in clandestine and covert operations, the terms secret and stealthy are not used to formally describe types of missions.
Covert operations are employed in situations where openly operating against a target would be disadvantageous. These operations are generally illegal in the target state and are frequently in violation of the laws of the sponsoring country. Operations may be directed at or conducted with allies and friends to secure their support for controversial components of foreign policy throughout the world. Covert operations may include sabotage, assassinations, support for coups d'état, or support for subversion. Tactics include the use of a false flag or front group.
The activity of organizations engaged in covert operations is in some instances similar to, or overlaps with, the activity of front organizations. While covert organizations are generally of a more official military or paramilitary nature, like the DVS German Air Transport School in the Nazi era, the line between both becomes muddled in the case of front organizations engaged in terrorist activities and organized crime.
- Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group
- Operation Wrath of God
- Operation Gladio
- Operation Anthropoid
- Huston Plan
- Iran-Contra affair
- Project MKULTRA
- Operation CHAOS
- CIA Project Cherry
- Vang Pao's Clandestine Army
- Palace Dog
- Raven Forward Air Controllers
Notable covert operators
The following persons are known to have participated in covert operations, as distinct from clandestine intelligence gathering (espionage) either by their own admission or by the accounts of others:
- Roy Farran Major Roy Alexandar Farran DSO MC and Two Bars served in her majesty's SAS during WW2 taking part in Operation Tombola, author of Winged Dagger lived 2 January 1921 – 2 June 2006.
- Robert Baer
- Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, Czechoslovak British-trained agents sent to assassinate one of the most important Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942 as part of Operation Anthropoid.
- Aaron Franklin, World War II US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer who created a fake group of the German Army, made up of POWs, with the mission of killing Hitler. As a colonel, he was the first commander of United States Army Special Forces.
- Charles Beckwith, US Army colonel who was an early exchange officer with the British Special Air Service (SAS), and created the Delta Force (1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) based on the SAS.
- Gary Berntsen, CIA field officer and team leader during Operation Enduring Freedom
- Wendell Fertig, United States Army Reserve officer who organized large Filipino guerrilla forces against the Japanese in World War II
- Virginia Hall, American who first worked for the British Special Operations Executive, then for the American Office of Strategic Services in German-occupied France. Only U.S. woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
- Eric Haney, one of the founding members of Delta Force.
- Michael Harari, Israeli Mossad officer who led assassination operations (Operation Wrath of God) against PLO members accused of the 1972 Munich Massacre.
- Bruce Rusty Lang, commander of a mixed United States Army Special Forces & Montagnard (Degar/Bru people) commando Recon Team (RT Oklahoma) of Command and Control North, Studies and Observations Group. Previously served on Project 404, U.S. Embassy Laos, Assistant Army Attaché ("Secret War" in Laos 1970).
- Edward Lansdale, United States Air Force officer (and eventually major general) seconded to the CIA, and noted for his work with Ramon Magsaysay against the Hukbalahap insurgency in Philippines during the early 1950s, and later involved in Operation Mongoose against Cuba.
- T. E. Lawrence, British "Lawrence of Arabia" who organized Arab forces during World War I.
- Alain Mafart, French DGSE officer convicted, in New Zealand, for sinking the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior.
- Richard Meadows, United States Army Special Forces officer known for many operations, including the POW rescue attempt at Son Tay, North Vietnam, and for deep operations in support of Operation Eagle Claw.
- Richard Meinertzhagen, British officer who engaged in deceptive operations against Turkish forces in World War I, although falsifying later operations.
- Ramon Mercader, NKVD operator who assassinated Leon Trotsky under the direction of Pavel Sudoplatov.
- Omar Nasiri
- Noor Inayat Khan, Anglo-Indian Special Operations Executive radio operator in World War II Occupied France, killed in Nazi captivity with three other SOE agents, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment.
- Chuck Pfarrer, former Navy SEAL.
- Dominique Prieur, French DGSE officer convicted, in New Zealand, for sinking the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior
- Richard Quirin, German World War II saboteur landed by German submarine in the US, as part of Operation Pastorius. Captured and executed. ex parte Quirin was a Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of execution of unlawful combatants.
- Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of operations of Black September.
- Mike Spann, CIA field officer and the first Agency operative to be killed in action during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
- Gary Schroen, CIA field officer who led the first CIA team into Afghanistan during the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom.
- Otto Skorzeny, German commando who led the rescue of Benito Mussolini, and operated in US uniform during the Battle of the Bulge.
- Pavel Sudoplatov, major general in Soviet state security (under many organizational names), with roles ranging from assassin to director of field operations.
- Jesús Villamor, Filipino Air Force officer that helped organize World War II guerilla movements.
- Billy Waugh, former United States Special Forces soldier who later worked as a contractor with the CIA.
Representations in popular culture
Covert operations have often been the subject of popular novels, films (Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, The Falcon and The Snowman, The Kremlin Letter), TV series, comics, etc. The Company is a fictional covert organization featured in the American television drama/thriller series Prison Break. Also other series that deal with covert operations are Mission: Impossible, Alias, Burn Notice, The Unit, The State Within, Covert Affairs, Air Wolf, and 24, and The Blacklist.
- Spy fiction
- Spy film
- HUMINT (clandestine (operational techniques))
- Military intelligence
- Black operation
- False flag
- Filibuster (military)
- Counterintelligence Field Activity
- Covert Warfare
- Task Force Falcon
- Manhunt (military)
- Church Committee
- Covert United States foreign regime change actions
- Executive Secrets: Coved the Presidency, William J. Daugherty, University of Kentucky Press, 2004, page 25.
- Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency, William J. Daugherty, University of Kentucky Press, 2004.
- All Necessary Means: Employing CIA operatives in a Warfighting Role Alongside Special Operations Forces, Colonel Kathryn Stone, Professor Anthony R. Williams (Project Advisor), United States Army War College (USAWC), 7 April 2003, page 7
- Daugherty, 2004, page 28.
- Daugherty, 2004, page 29.
- Statutory Procedures Under Which Congress Is To Be Informed of U.S. Intelligence Activities, Including Covert Actions by Alfred Cumming, 18 January 2006 (HTML) - Congressional Research Service
- Richard Hersh Statement to House Judiciary Democratic Congressional Briefing, 20 January 2006 (HTML) via thewall.civiblog.org
- Full Transcript, House Judiciary Democratic Membership Briefing "Constitution in Crisis: Domestic Surveillance and Executive Power" 20 January 2006 (HTML) via thewall.civiblog.org
- "Big Brother is Watching You Part 1 - 902 MI Group TALON Project Summary, Spreadsheet, Rep. Wexler response, and News Coverage collection (includes Shane Harris's "TIA Lives On") via thewall.civiblog.org
- Steath Network Operations Centre – Covert Communication Support System