The Continuing Quandary of Covert Operations

In May 2011, shortly after a special operations team of Navy SEALs killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, there was a fresh surge of enthusiasm for covert operations. That is unfortunate because, behind the scenes, secret warfare is actually in crisis. We need to re-examine the suitability and constitutionality of covert operations and, among other things, devise a sound constitutional framework for conducting them.

A delegation of Pakistani officials recently completed a visit to Washington for very private talks about a secret war. Representing that nation’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and headed by its chief, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Pakistani delegation came to America to rein in the CIA. While CIA spokesmen put the best possible face on this event – calling the talks “productive” – there was no real meeting of the minds. The raid on bin Laden, executed without reference to Pakistani sovereignty, added insult to injury, since Pakistani demands to be kept fully informed of U.S. activities were clearly ignored in the SEAL operation. And just to pile on, American pundits, including former CIA director Leon Panetta, proceeded to accuse Pakistan of complicity or incompetence, given bin Laden’s presence in a Pakistani garrison town. Observers should be in no doubt that this moment marks a watershed in the South Asian secret war. Much like the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam conflict, the event signifies the instant when U.S. capabilities peak, past which further escalation on any plane becomes less probable.

By John Prados

Dr. John Prados directs the Archive’s Iraq Documentation Project as well as its Vietnam Project and is a Senior Research Fellow on national security affairs, including foreign affairs, intelligence, and military subjects. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Columbia University and has authored many books, most recently Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War and the forthcoming How the Cold War Ended. His work centers on subjects including the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Vietnam war, and analysis of international relations, plus diplomatic and military history more generally. His books Unwinnable War, Keepers of the Keys (on the National Security Council) and Combined Fleet Decoded (on intelligence in the Pacific in World War II) were each nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Among his seventeen books are Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006, paperback 2009); William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster (Lawrence: University Presses of Kansas, paperback 2009); and Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (New York: The New Press, 2004). His papers appear in many other books, and his articles have been in Vanity Fair, the Journal of American History, Diplomatic History, Intelligence and National Security, Scientific American, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of East-West Studies, Survival, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The VVA Veteran.

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