Monday’s Mtg: Benefits and Costs of Covert Action

Since 9/11, the use of covert action by the United States has skyrocketed.  To battle Al Qaeda, we routinely use drone strikes, special forces raids, private military contractors, foreign paramilitaries, and much, much more.

Even if this has been necessary, it has been costly, both monetarily and probably (it can be hard to tell) in terms of side effects and blowback.  Yet, our political system seldom debates the merits of covert action.  On Monday, John, our resident expert on these matters, will treat us to a historical perspective of the upside and downside of heavily relying on covert action.  John was a lawyer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Iran-Contra investigation and later represented Vietnamese soldiers that we used in covert ops and then abandoned.  It should be very interesting in its own right and should serve as a nice segue to discussing the whole new world of covert ops since 9/11.  The links below give some background on what John will be talking about AND an introduction to some of the controversies surrounding today’s worldwide war on terror.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –   [revised on Sunday per John]

  1. What is “covert action?”  What parts of the U.S. Government do it and why?
  2. When has it worked and not worked in the past?  What does “worked” mean?
  3. Does covert action subvert democracy?
  4. Can we afford not to use covert action?  Can we  afford the price of covert actions i.e., blowback?
  5. Can there be oversight of covert actions?
  6. By how much did Al Qaeda’s rise change the strategic calculation – and lower the threshold – for using covert action?  By too much?



Past problems with covert action  (The4se are via John)

Current Issues –

NEXT WEEK:  Are Americans Puritans or libertines?  I’m a Winter.


2 responses

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    I would also suggest people familiarize themselves with Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback trilogy.

  2. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    Thanks to John for that most illuminating talk.
    Afterward, it was suggested that the Panama Canal affair might be an example of successful covert action. But on reflection, this seems to me doubtful.
    In those days, there were no drones. No CIA or NSA. No assassinations. No large body of covert operatives in Colombia, or Panama.
    What happened was that a body meeting in NY declared itself the govt. of an independent state of Panama–no doubt there was considerable hanky-panky involved here, but the action involved was overt.
    Then, the new govt. ceded the Canal Zone to the US, and Roosevelt went in and started building the canal. Again, nothing covert.
    Merits further research, but it seems that the differences from more recent covert actions or “special ops” would be great.

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