Paramilitary operations – “PM ops” in American spytalk – may be defined as secret war-like activities. They are a part of a broader set of endeavors undertaken by intelligence agencies to manipulate events abroad, when so ordered by authorities in the executive branch. These activities are known collectively as “covert action” (CA) or, alternatively, “special activities,” “the quiet option,” or “the third option” (between diplomacy and overt military intervention). In addition to PM ops, CA includes secret political and economic operations, as well as the use of propaganda. Often
used synergically, each form is meant to help nudge the course of history – insofar as this is possible – in a direction favorable to the United States. Since the creation of the modern U.S. “intelligence community” by way of the National Security Act of 1947, PM ops have been conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), known by insiders as “The Agency.”
This article offers a brief history of America’s paramilitary activities, with special attention to the relationship between intelligence analysis – the attempts by the CIA and its fifteen companion agencies to understand contemporary world events and forecast how they will unfold – and the use of paramilitary forces to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals.
Leon Panetta appeared on PBS Newshour not long after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency at that time, and during the course of the interview he took up the question of the CIA’s role in the attack. It had been “a ‘title 50’ operation,” he explained, invoking the section of the U.S. Code that authorizes the activities of the CIA. As a result, Panetta added, he had exercised overall “command.”
This surely confused at least some observers. The mission had been executed by U.S. Navy SEALs from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) after all, and both operational and tactical command seemed to have resided at all times with JSOC personnel. But for those who had been following the evolution of the CIA and JSOC during the post-9/11 period, Panetta’s account would not have been surprising. The bin Laden raid was, from this perspective, merely the latest example of an ongoing process of convergence among military and intelligence activities, institutions, and
To the surprise of many, it turns out that Canada’s chief security intelligence agency – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) –may not legally collect covert intelligence abroad. That is at least one interpretation of a Canadian Federal Court decision issued in October 2007, but only released publicly in 2008. At issue was whether the court had the jurisdiction to issue a warrant under the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act (CSIS Act) in investigations concerning Canadians taking place overseas. CSIS had sought the warrant because the targets of the investigations, as Canadians, potentially enjoyed privacy rights under Canada’s constitutional bill of rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Faced with this conundrum, there were two plausible courses of action open to the court. First, it could have concluded that the CSIS Act’s warrant provisions extended only as far as authorizing searches and seizures in Canada. While this approach would have left open the question whether constitutional rules applied to CSIS’s extraterritorial conduct, it would have allowed the court to avoid the incongruity of a Canadian court “legally” authorizing an invasion of privacy taking place in a foreign jurisdiction whose own laws would probably be violated by the action.
Second, the court could have reached even further and concluded that CSIS itself has no statutory authorization to conduct extraterritorial investigations, pursuant to its core, statutory mission to collect intelligence relating to threats to the security of Canada. This approach would avoid the constitutional question entirely, but with the consequence of greatly limiting the scope of CSIS’s basic jurisdictional competence.