CIA floor seal in black and white, 1950

What constitutes successful covert action?

This article was written by Rory Cormac, Calder Walton and Damien Van Puyvelde
This article was published on

In their new article for BISA journal Review of International Studies, authors Rory Cormac, Calder Walton and Damien Van Puyvelde examine how covert actions become perceived as successes and competing criteria for success.  They illustrate this using the case of ‘the golden age of CIA operations’. Here they summarise the full article.

Rory Cormac also spoke to BISA Director, Juliet Dryden, and their interview can be viewed towards the bottom of the page.

For something supposedly secret, covert action has featured in the news surprisingly frequently in recent years. Prominent examples are bewildering in their variety and brazen in design: Russian attempts to influence successive US presidential elections; Russian assassination operations across Europe; Chinese disinformation about COVID-19; American support for Syrian rebels; Iranian sabotage of Israeli ships; Israeli assassination of Iranian scientists, and British attempts to disrupt both terrorist communications and hostile states spreading vaccine disinformation. These very different recent examples all constitute covert action: the unacknowledged interference in the affairs of others to create political change.  

As pioneering historians emerge from national archives with more and more examples of such subterranean statecraft, especially during the Cold War, International Relations scholars are exploiting these case studies by turning their attention to this mysterious and much mythologised activity to update our understanding of international affairs.

Unfortunately, despite recent attention – both academic and popular – we have little understanding of whether covert action works. More fundamentally, we have little understanding of what even constitutes success in the first place.  

It is incredibly difficult to demonstrate cause and effect. By its very nature, covert action operates in the shadows. But secrecy is only half the problem.  

States sponsor local dissidents, rebel groups or political parties – actors with their own agency. They do so alongside more open measures such as economic sanctions, diplomacy and military threats. This makes it tricky – if not impossible – to isolate the impact of the external hidden hand from internal forces or from other more conventional means of pursuing foreign policy.

At the same time, deciphering whether covert action achieved its goals only tells us half of the story. What about the wider impact on oversight, democratic norms, and values? What about the damage to a country’s reputation if, or more likely when, it becomes exposed? What about the longer-term consequences?

All of this requires subjective judgement. Success is not something to be objectively discovered or proven. It is a label, produced through debate and, given the romanticisation of covert actions, through storytelling.

Covert actions are successful when influential observers judge that the operation met the goals that policymakers set out to achieve; when these judgements have stuck; and when there is minimal criticism of the way the state achieved this and of the political consequences. Success is about dominant narratives. It is about interpretations of various factors, from goals to impacts; and these interpretations are shaped by all sorts of biases.  

The so-called ‘golden age’ of CIA covert action back in the 1950s is a case in point. This spanned attempts to influence the 1948 Italian election to keep the communists out of power; the removal of the Iranian prime minister in 1953; and a coup against the Guatemalan president a year later. Together, these successes seem to demonstrate CIA power and potency. They are legendary.  

If we dig a little deeper, we can carefully excavate the construction of this success. It is not the case that each operation was objectively successful: that the CIA definitively made all the difference and did so in a way which did not disproportionately undermine procedural and political ramifications. That this is a discoverable fact.  

Instead, the story of success emerged through a framing that emphasised US interests and mindsets and brave CIA characters. When our understanding, scholarly and popular, comes from western intelligence sources, it is unsurprising that the hidden hand appears so dominant.  

Interestingly, all sides – the CIA, critics, and the target state – have incentives to collude in this narrative of success.  They rarely bother to explore the suggestion that covert intervention made little difference. Impotency does not suit them. America’s side won; proof is not necessary. For the Americans, a powerful CIA provides reassurance of their security and place in the world. For critics, a powerful CIA is a mythologised bogeyman to rally against. For the target states, a powerful CIA provides convenient scapegoats for domestic failings and internal divisions.  

Narratives of success start to diverge when thinking about short-term versus long-term success, but again this is a subjective judgement. Did the 1953 coup in Iran bring about enough stability at the height of the Cold War to justify whatever longer-term ill effects might be ascribed to it? Complicating things further, those effects can never be proven. 

Narratives also diverge when thinking about whether the ‘golden age’ was excessive and the implications of these operations for US governance and reputation. Even then, few people – including critics in Congress – questioned the impact of the CIA. This leaves a narrative of success, at least in terms of meeting objectives, broadly intact.  

Narratives diverge more fundamentally when considering the question of success for whom. Moving out the US national security context allows us to consider voices which have traditionally been marginalised. Doing so shines a light on how we understand success. It allows us to challenge ethno- and state-centrism in our understandings of covert action.  

This has important real-world implications. A wider ranging dialogue and a bit more conceptual clarity tease out the trade-offs involved when debating the use of covert action. These include the impact of such operations on authorisation processes, democratic norms, and broader political reputations. For example, successfully interfering in an election can be outweighed by the cost of a sponsored candidate being tainted as a perceived puppet if exposed. Likewise, operational success might be outweighed by broader political and reputational hits. 

Similarly, conceptual clarity teases out the (often conflated) relationship between outputs and outcomes. Literature often focuses on the number of propaganda outputs rather than the impact they had. Paradoxically, desire for metrics can actually hinder operations by pushing towards easy wins, which agencies can claim as successes, but which come at the cost of longer-term confusion. 

Tracing how a covert action came to be seen as a success or failure underlines the importance of perceptions and narratives in international affairs. Covert actions, such as US interference in the 1948 Italian election, are successful if influential audiences perceive them as such. The ‘golden age’ was therefore a success, albeit a partial one given the criticism of excess. 

This has implications for how states use and respond to covert actions today. We need to recognise the dangers of covert action. It is a very real part of international relations at the moment. At the same time, reactions to hostile covert actions, especially when overplaying perceived success, can generate paranoia, hysteria and conspiracism. Much like in Iran regarding the CIA, so in the United States after 2016 the Russian hand appeared everywhere and parts of the American public lost faith in the state's own liberal democratic institutions. Overplaying Russian success does the Kremlin’s job for them. It breathes oxygen into what might otherwise be rather underwhelming propaganda operations. Unpacking how success is constructed should inform how we use and respond to covert actions today.  

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI:

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