In a world of terrorists, failed states, anti-American dictators, and violent racists, the United States seeks to protect its citizens and its values against these and other global threats. Diplomacy and war-making are two common and well-known approaches to America’s defense, but a Third Option has also been an important foreign-policy response. This Third Option is known by intelligence officers who carry it out under White House orders as “covert action”—a hidden attempt to shape history in a direction favorable to the United States. Its methods include secret propaganda, political, economic, and paramilitary operations, ranging all the way from relatively benign foreign media manipulation to assassination plots against foreign leaders considered a threat to U.S. interests.
Covert action raises difficult practical and moral questions, and its use has been highly controversial since its main architect—the Central Intelligence Agency—was created in 1947. Among the central issues surrounding this topic are the following: Does it work? How much does it cost, in terms of blood and money? What are the ethical implications of a secret foreign policy? Is U.S. covert action any different from Russia’s “active measures”—which lie at the heart of the recent Mueller Report? Covert action will continue to be a mainstay of U.S. foreign policy; citizens need to understand its uses and help policymakers draw bright lines, when necessary, in its conduct.