Covert Action: a Chimera

THIS new year will see continuing efforts in the Congress and the executive to define the proper role for US intelligence in today's world. Included will be the future place of covert political action - clandestine measures taken to undermine and, if possible, replace antagonistic regimes.

Covert action has a strong allure for political leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who are frustrated by the limitations of overt means, whether economic or military. Those limitations are many: differences with allies over the assessment of threats, regional sensitivities, conflicts with other interests such as trade, and US domestic attitudes.

Temptations to undertake covert action have been strongest in the case of four countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Cuba. In December, Congress proposed a $20 million fund to undertake secret political measures against the regime in Iran. US officials have spent hours considering how Saddam Hussein in Iraq might be replaced. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has reportedly fended off several attempts against his government; at least some of them reportedly had US support. The many efforts to undermine Fidel Castro Ruz in Cuba are well documented.

But, in the long history of US attempts since World War II, there have been few successes. Those that are known - Iran in 1952 and Guatemala in 1954 - although considered successes at the time, left longer-term legacies of anti-US sentiment and authoritarian governments.

Covert political action as a tool of US policy has several inherent flaws. Secretly bringing about a change of regime from the outside requires intimate knowledge of the country and credible indigenous partners. Rarely does the US have either. US agencies have been tempted at times to cooperate with the Iranian Mojahedin, based in Iraq, but the group has a history of terrorism, including attacks on Americans. The Iraqi opposition is divided and lacks known support within the country. Not only are anti-Qaddafi Libyans not united, but they are intimidated by threats to their lives. Cuban exile groups also suffer divisions and are often out of touch with the realities on the island. Further, US intelligence is frequently at the mercy of assessments of exiles who paint rosy and often misleading pictures to gain US support.

In each country, undercover external assaults on a regime will usually face well-organized and experienced security organizations. Such organizations can pounce quickly on suspected opponents.

If covert action is to be successful, the power involved must be able credibly to deny any role. Washington, however, seems often to have an irrepressible impulse to demonstrate, through leaks of often sensitive information, that it is taking action against an unpopular regime. Such releases make denial impossible and increase the risk to long-term US interests in the country.

Overt attempts to improve relations with these nations are out of the question. In the case of Iran, its weapon programs, opposition to Middle East peace, and assistance to Hizbullah attacks on Israel from Lebanon stand in the way. Iraq has yet to comply fully with UN resolutions relating to its weapons programs. Libya refuses to turn over the alleged perpetrators of the PanAm 103 disaster. The electoral clout of Florida's Cuban community not only leads to stricter measures against Castro but also inhibits diplomatic initiatives.

In all these nations, changes will most likely come about over time through internal pressures. Abortive manipulation by an external element, including the United States, can only raise false hopes among the internal opposition and make future US relations with a successor regime even more difficult.

US intelligence is frequently at the mercy of exiles who paint rosy and often misleading pictures.

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