THE classic ``covert action'' of this century - perhaps all time - was the return by the Imperial German government in April 1917 of the Bolshevik revolutionary, Lenin, from exile in Switzerland to Russia. The German purpose was to introduce a leader into the Russian revolutionary ferment who would take Russia out of World War I and thereby permit Germany to concentrate its forces against the Western allies.
The short-term result was spectacularly successful.
Over a longer term the German covert action deprived the Russian people of the one chance they have had in their history to achieve democratic government, resulted in deaths by execution or deliberately contrived starvation and privation of several times the number of people who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and eventually destroyed both the German government and the German nation.
Covert action was established as a formal arm of United States government structure and policy when the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was grafted onto the newly established Central Intelligence Agency in 1947.
With rare exceptions the covert actions that the US has undertaken since that time and which have become public knowledge bear a startling likeness in structure and sequence, if not in scale, to the Lenin episode.
From the overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953 to the Iran-contra affair, the focus has been on short-term goals, to the exclusion of all else.
The long-term effect of the 1953 CIA operation in Iran was to bring to power a virulently anti-American theocracy in 1979. The failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 would lead to the solidification of Cuba as a base of Soviet power in the Western Hemisphere. Each successive large-scale failure has convulsed the US government, until now, for the first time in our history, we have seen open contempt and defiance by serving active-duty military officers of the entire democratic process.
We have also seen confirmed the warnings, at least a decade old, that the OSS covert-action ``camel'' had taken over the CIA ``tent.'' That William J. Casey, the late CIA director (and OSS veteran), was serving up intelligence ``cooked'' to support his personal ideology and private wars could not possibly have surprised anyone who has studied the development of the CIA since its inception.
Congress has largely lost its constitutional power to declare war. To the extent that it continues to permit the executive branch to conduct secret military action, whether directly or by proxy, for the attainment of foreign or domestic policy goals, it jeopardizes the balance that was so carefully and precariously established two centuries ago. If the history of the past 40 years tells us anything, it is that the conduct of secret military operations short of a congressional declaration of war for anything other than the protection or rescue of US citizens, and by any agency other than US military forces, not only could lead but plainly is leading to the destruction of our free institutions.
If the damage to this most vital of all our interests is to be repaired, three actions are imperative:
The CIA should be reorganized and renamed to return it to its original purpose as an agency for the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of national security information, broadly defined.
The planning and conduct of military operations, to include arms transfers in any form, should be vested solely in the Department of Defense.
Much stricter congressional controls should be imposed on the exercise of presidential power, short of a declaration of war, to commit US forces and US armaments for any purpose other than self-defense, rescue, and humanitarian relief.
William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs.