Covert operation

A covert operation is a military or political activity carried out in such a way that the parties responsible for the action can be an open secret, but cannot be proved. Covert and clandestine 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

Studies and Observation Group (1964 - 1972)

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 (1972-199?)

Operation Wrath of God was conducted by Mossad and resulted in the assassination of Palestinians who organized the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. 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.

Iran-Contra Affair (1980s)

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:

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.



See also


External links

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