A covert operation
is a military
activity carried out in such a way that the parties responsible for the action can be an open secret
, but cannot be proved. Covert
are related terms, but not interchangeable. According to a United States Department of Defense
definition, a covert operation is:
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.
Covert operations are generally illegal in the target state and are frequently in violation of the laws of the enacting country. Therefore covert operations are typically performed in secrecy because they break specific laws or compromise policy in another country.
Covert operations are employed in situations where openly operating against a target would be politically or diplomatically risky, or be counterproductive to the mission's purpose. Operations may be directed at or conducted with allies and friends to secure their support for controversial components of foreign policy throughout the world. The equivalent Soviet terminology would be "active measures".
Law enforcement agencies also use covert operations to infiltrate suspected criminal organizations.
There is political subversion, in are CIA-owned airline that supplied Hmong fighters in Laos during the Vietnam War, is an example of such a front organization.
Examples of covert and clandestine operations
This campaign against North Vietnam
—the largest and most complex covert/clandestine operation since World War II
—was conducted by the Studies and Observation Group
(SOG) between 1964 and 1972. SOG reported to the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA) in the Pentagon, since Military Assistance Command Vietnam
(MACV) had no border-crossing authority.
SOG had several subgroups, including cross-border special reconnaissance against the Ho Chi Minh trail, attempts to put spies into North Vietnam, and maritime operations. The latter included kidnapping of fishermen followed by their release with propaganda gifts, and direct action raids against North Vietnamese coastal targets. The North Vietnamese may have assumed the SIGINT destroyer patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident were part of the raiding, although they were separate operations.
Operation Wrath of God
was conducted by Mossad
and resulted in the assassination
who organized the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics
. While the operation was in process, it was covert at worst (i.e., Palestinians knew someone was assassinating them), but clandestinity was the goal. That the operation was later acknowledged by Israel did not make it covert during execution.
COINTELPRO (Late 1960s - Mid 1970s)
In Operation COINTELPRO
, the FBI
infiltrated and disrupted domestic left-leaning political groups during the Cold War
. The mission was regarded by the sponsor (the FBI) to be clandestine in nature. When exposed, the activity was eventually declared illegal and led to additional U.S. laws being passed to attempt to prevent further such actions by the U.S. against its own citizens.
J. Edgar Hoover blocked, for bureaucratic reasons, a parallel White House effort, the Huston Plan.
The Iran-Contra Affair
, also known as "Irangate" and "Contragate
", took place in Nicaragua
. Former National Security Advisor Marine
Colonel Oliver North
, retired General Richard Secord
, Robert McFarlane
, and Admiral John Poindexter
helped the National Security Council
raise private and foreign funds. North and Secord set up companies to buy and transport arms, working with reputed international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi
North, Secord, McFarlane, and Pointdexter's activities were under the umbrella of then–CIA Director William Casey's secret effort to establish an "off the shelf" covert action capability for President Ronald Reagan, separate from the existing national security apparatus
The Reagan administration, in contravention to the Boland Amendment (which ended funding of the Contras), sold military arms to the Contras for three main reasons: first, to aid the Contras against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; second, to use the weapons sale proceeds to fund the exchange of various U.S. hostages held in the Middle East; and third, to hinder the advancement of communism.
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:
- Robert Baer
- Aaron Franklin, World War II US 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 US Delta Force (1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) based on the SAS.
- Gary Berntsen, CIA field officer and team leader during Operation Enduring Freedom.
- Abu Daoud, leader of the PLO Black September organization.
- Wendell Fertig, US Army Reserve officer who organized large guerilla forces of Filipinos against the World War II Japanese occupation.
- Virginia Hall, American who first worked for the British Special Operations Executive, then for the US Office of Strategic Services in World War II occupied France. Only US woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
- Eric Haney, former founding member 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 U.S. 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, US Air Force officer (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, US 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, the attempted rescue of US embassy personnel in Tehran.
- Carmine Annunziata, US Army CID officer in Operation Strike Force.
- 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 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.
- Jesus 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 of covert operations in popular culture
Covert operations have often been the subject of popular novels, films, TV series, comics, etc.
See Spy fiction
See Spy film