CIA Covert Actions - an Overt Failure
For too many years the United States and the CIA have been conducting covert actions to destabilize countries large and small, mostly with negative results.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, for the first time, the United States is suffering the consequences of these actions as former Afghan freedom fighters are targeting this country and its allies, and the Justice Department is investigating whether CIA officials were witting of contra drug sales in Californian cities. The negative fallout - or "blowback" - of these actions in Afghanistan and Nicaragua is one more reason to end US covert actions once and for all.
The CIA spent more than $3 billion in the 1980s to train and fund Afghan resistance groups - most were venomously anti-Western - that have formed the core of an international network of Islamic militants. Large amounts of CIA weaponry went to the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most anti-Western of the resistance leaders and, until recently, prime minister of Afghanistan. Mr. Hekmatyar's allies included Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was sent to life imprisonment in New York for seditious conspiracy to wage a "war of urban terrorism" against the US. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the man accused of planning the World Trade Center bombing, was trained in Afghanistan.
The terrorist network has targeted Washington's most pivotal Islamic allies, claiming responsibility for the first terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia and some of the worst attacks in Pakistan.
Calls for more, not less
Not long after the collapse of the CIA's operations in Iraq, and the abandonment of its Kurdish agents, director of central intelligence John Deutch was calling for more covert operations. President Clinton recently signed into law a bill that made no attempt to reform the CIA despite recent scandals, including exposure of CIA activities in Guatemala and Honduras. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which favors more covert action, recently approved greater funding for the intelligence community.
Covert action has had its successes to be sure, particularly during the worst days of the cold war, when the CIA supported liberal political parties in Western Europe and initiated Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
The CIA has mounted other successful covert programs against repressive regimes. In the early 1980s, the CIA supported Solidarity and helped destabilize the communist government in Poland in close coordination with the Vatican. With information from a KGB defector, the CIA cooperated with the government of Iran to crush the underground communist party there and the Soviet intelligence network. After the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square, CIA officers conducted a clandestine rescue of some of the most important pro-democracy leaders.
More often than not, however, covert action has not worked and even short-term successes - such as Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and Afghanistan in the 1980s - have become long-term failures. The intense unpopularity of the Shah after the CIA helped him to power in 1953 led to the Islamic revolution of 1979. Guatemala became the home of the most brutal military regime in Central America, and CIA officers failed to pass on reports of terrorist activities by Guatemalan military officers. Afghanistan has become a land of death and misery, and weapons supplied to the mujahideen are fueling conflicts in Bosnia and the Sudan.
Threats to democracy
There have been covert programs that threatened the autonomy and democracy of other nations when US national security was not at stake, including operations to unseat President Sukarno in Indonesia and to prevent the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile. The CIA established covert relations with the Kurds, Cuban exiles, and Meo tribesmen in Laos only to abandon them abruptly when US policy changed. The contra war in Nicaragua and support for UNITA in Angola in the 1980s raised the level of violence in both nations, with senior CIA officers keeping sensitive information about these programs from the Congress and US ambassadors.
The laws authorizing the CIA make no mention of covert or clandestine operations, and the first CIA director actually resisted such operations because he was convinced from his wartime experience that the agency could not effectively engage in both information-gathering (the CIA's mission) and covert action. The CIA's first general counsel, moreover, believed that clandestine operations were illegal and that Congress did not intend to grant such authority.
The CIA's authority for covert action grew out of the worst days of the cold war, and it is now time to reexamine that authority. Covert actions raise serious moral and political questions that tarnish our quest for international stability and compromise our principles as a constitutional democracy. They should be stopped.
*Melvin A. Goodman, formerly senior Soviet analyst at the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington.