A measured assessment of the American military's resolve to develop covert-action capabilities during the 1980's. Emerson (who covers the national security beat for U.S. News & World Report) offers a cautionary tale that starts with the Pentagon's disgust at the CIA's failure to provide either intelligence or support for the abortive 1980 attempt to snatch American hostages from Iran. Determined to go it alone, he recounts, the armed forces sponsored and financed clandestine units with global briefs. Using information gained from interviews with US Government agents and officials as well as access to documentary evidence (at least some of which seems to be classified), the author details how these exotically named outfits (Seaspray, Yellow Fruit, et al.) bugged limousines being built for Soviet diplomats at an Opel plant in West Germany, flew spy planes over Central America, plotted the assassination of terrorists in Lebanon, and conducted scores of other hush-hush missions. While undercover military operatives have achieved a number of (largely unheralded) triumphs, Emerson discloses that they've also suffered setbacks; the most notable, perhaps, was involvement in the widely publicized Iragua scandal. But clandestine units have created equally serious problems for themselves by backing rogue operations (like that mounted by retired Army Colonel Bo Gritz to search for MIAs in Laos), engaging in turf battles, bypassing chains of command, being conned by the CIA, relying on psychics, and in a few cases misappropriating the unaccountable funds at their disposal. Emerson does not gainsay the need for covert military operations in an uncertain and dangerous world. Indeed, he argues, they're vital to gather intelligence, combat terrorism, counter Soviet espionage, and otherwise work toward the nation's foreign policy objectives. On the other hand, he observes, loosely controlled units have violated federal laws and embroiled the US in international crises. Without specifying how this paradox might best be resolved, Emerson has made a valuable contribution to the debate now shaping up on means and ends in an open, democratic society.