COVERT ACTION: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World by Treverton; Gregory F.

COVERT ACTION: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World

Email this review


An insider's tough-minded and timely appraisal of the supposedly secret deeds done by agencies of the US Government in aid of foreign policy objectives. Currently a senior research associate at Harvard's JFK School of Government, Treverton was on the staff of the so-called Church Committee, which conducted a post-Watergate investigation of the intelligence community; subsequently, he worked at the National Security Council. Drawing on his own experiences, archival material, and secondary sources, the author assesses the pros and cons of covert action--which may take the form of propaganda, behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, and paramilitary operations (preferably, susceptible to plausible deniability). In a dangerous and unfriendly world, clandestine enterprises that are ""less than war but more than nothing"" have obvious appeal for executive-branch strategists, he notes. As a practical matter, however, Treverton's detailed post-mortems of consequential interventions in Angola, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala; Iran, Nicaragua, and other remote venues suggest covert action involves at least as many pitfalls as payoffs. To begin with, he argues, virtually all undercover schemes wind up as open secrets. Once launched, moreover, campaigns tend to get out of control and to produce unintended results. Apart from the problem of Congressional oversight (frequently a matter of winks and nods), there's also what Treverton calls ""the ultimate paradox,"" i.e., covert actions undertaken on behalf of a putatively open society. Beyond suggesting a need for stricter guidelines and greater caution as well as candor, Treverton has no definitive recommendations for squaring this particular circle. Nor does he at any point flatly reject covert action as a policy option. His text nonetheless offers a thoughtful, informed overview that promises to prove a valuable contribution to the debate now in progress on a vital, ambiguous subject.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1987
Publisher: Basic Books