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]
- What is “covert action?” What parts of the U.S. Government do it and why?
- When has it worked and not worked in the past? What does “worked” mean?
- Does covert action subvert democracy?
- Can we afford not to use covert action? Can we afford the price of covert actions i.e., blowback?
- Can there be oversight of covert actions?
- By how much did Al Qaeda’s rise change the strategic calculation – and lower the threshold – for using covert action? By too much?
- A definition of “covert action.” It’s not just the old coups and paramilitary stuff.
Past problems with covert action (The4se are via John)
- 1960s Vietnam: The secret warriors we left behind. Must-read.
- 1980s Central America: The Contras and Drug Running – it was all true. Recommended.
- John helped to litigate this.
Current Issues –
- Covert ops are the wave of the future. Don’t we need to discuss this as a nation?
- The militarization of the CIA worries many people, as does the blurring of responsibility between the DOD and CIA. Read at least one.
- Optional long read (25pp, pdf): An academic national security expert on covert action broadly denounces their effectiveness. I’m not entirely persuaded by this.
NEXT WEEK: Are Americans Puritans or libertines? I’m a Winter.