Adventures in Futility: Covert Paramilitary Action as an Instrument of State Power

The following is based on a short student exercise I composed a while back. I had been meaning to write a post based on the same research, and the recent New York Times story about CENTCOM increasing its covert activities encouraged me to start working on it. However, rather than waste time rewriting the same material, I decided to simply cut and paste the entire document, polishing certain areas to make it more suitable for a blog format. As a result, the post is longer than I would have preferred, but the benefit is that the original argument structure – including footnotes – remains intact. If the writing style seems a bit different from my usual work, it is because the body of the document was written some time ago, and for a different audience.

I take anything in the New York Times with several tablespoons of salt, especially when the topic is covert operations. I recall reading very similar articles in the past, and the article does not suggest that CENTCOM is doing anything more substantial than increasing its liaison activities with friendly governments in the region.  However, it does raise the question of the advisability of the unacknowledged use of military force.

Covert paramilitary action is one of the most difficult, risky, and controversial instruments of state power. In the realm of foreign policy, where there are only bad choices, it has often been considered an ideal third option between inactive passivity and the overt use of military force. However, in the U.S. experience, covert paramilitary action has often resulted in spectacular failures that did not achieve their objectives, embarrassed the United States, undermined policy, and damaged prestige. This post will assess the viability of covert paramilitary action as a policy instrument by briefly surveying some known US operations in an effort to extract key lessons.

Defining covert paramilitary action

Covert action is legally defined by the National Security Act as “an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” A wide range of activities fall under this definition, most of which are relatively mundane. The secret support of foreign governments, the use of agents of influence, “grey” and “black” propaganda, supporting foreign political parties and other organizations, and a myriad of other activities can all be legally defined as “covert action.” This article focuses on a very narrow range on the spectrum of covert operations: the unacknowledged use of irregular military forces in pursuit of political objectives, including the covert support of indigenous paramilitary organizations. This definition excludes individual acts of targeted violence, such as assassinations[1] or “direct action” by special operation units. It also excludes coup d’etats that derive from internal court politics (the “palace coup”[2]), even if they were orchestrated or assisted by the U.S. Most importantly, this definition DOES NOT include covert operations that occur within the larger context of overt military operations and declared hostilities. This criteria leaves us with a relatively small number of operations which, though rare, embody the essence of “secret war” and inspire intense debate concerning their utility and ethicality. However, “covert” should not be understood as synonymous with “low profile.” As we shall see, many paramilitary operations conducted by the United States were covert in name only.


The U.S. developed a permanent infrastructure for covert action only after World War II. However, America’s use of the instrument is much older; analogous operations can be identified throughout American history, even when the Republic was very young. In the first such instance, America was itself the covert instrument of another power’s foreign policy. During the Revolutionary War, France identified an opportunity to weaken the British Empire – recently victorious in the Seven Years’ War – by secretly assisting the American colonists in their struggle for independence. First sending agents to assess the situation, France made contact with Continental agents and set up a front company by which military supplies could be shipped to the colonists in exchange for farm produce. The provisioning of these supplies was instrumental for the American victory at Saratoga, which itself energized the American cause and gave France the necessary confidence for the open alliance that would follow soon thereafter. Benjamin Franklin played a crucial role in securing both the covert assistance and the alliance; as a representative of a rebel movement lobbying a Great Power for covert assistance, Franklin in many ways set a precedent that the U.S. would later have much experience with.[3]

In the early years of the 19th century, as U.S. shipping fell victim to pirates from the Barbary states of North Africa, President Thomas Jefferson launched a major campaign in the Mediterranean to coerce Barbary leaders to cease their marauding. A plot was hatched to unseat the Pasha of Tripoli, Yussif Karamanli, who held captive the crew of the USS Philadelphia. In 1804, William Eaton, a former U.S. consul to Tunis, and a small detachment of U.S. Marines were dispatched to Alexandria, where they contacted Hamet Karamanli, the deposed brother of the reigning Pasha, and offered to return him to the throne. After raising a small army of mercenaries, Eaton led the army 500 miles west across the North African desert, seizing the city of Derna as a base to march on Tripoli itself. After Derna was taken, however, the Pasha signed a peace treaty and Eaton and the Marines were ordered out of Derna along with Hamet and the Christian mercenaries; the Muslims were left behind.[4]

The expedition against the Pasha of Tripoli was in many ways America’s first covert paramilitary action and though seemingly successful, had negative consequences that would be mirrored in future US operations. The operation may have been little more than a policy hedge intended to pressure the Pasha into signing a treaty. When the treaty was signed, the campaign was canceled and allies were abandoned to their fate as the US contingent was pulled out. Nor were the results of the war decisive; the Pasha soon renounced the treaty and resumed his attacks on US shipping. Powerless to act due to resumed hostilities with the British Empire, the US once again was forced to pay tribute to the Barbary leaders and pay ransom for seized ships and crews. The Barbary wars ended only after a combined European fleet launched a punitive expedition against the Barbary States in 1816, bombarding Algiers for nine hours until the city was in ruins and the Dey’s naval power destroyed.

William Eaton’s expedition became a glory for the United States, but the premature termination of the operation was costly for U.S. prestige, presenting an image of weakness that the Barbary leaders seized upon to renounce the treaties and resume their piracy. Had the operation to remove the Pasha been considered an end in itself rather than just a policy hedge to apply pressure, the Barbary Wars might have ended decisively with the capture of Tripoli. Instead, they dragged on for another decade.

Halcyon Days of Covert Paramilitary Operations

Covert paramilitary action, as the U.S. understands the concept today, is largely British in origin. Serving as both a journalist and a soldier during the Boer War, Winston Churchill was impressed by the ability of the Boer commandos to impede the counterinsurgency efforts of the British forces.  During the early years of World War II, when British forces were locked out of the continent and seemed to be on the verge of defeat in nearly every theater, Churchill searched for a means to strike out against the enemy and recalled the lessons of South Africa. With conventional military operations impossible in the near term, Churchill ordered his Minister of Economic Warfare to “set Europe ablaze” with a massive campaign of subversive warfare. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created and set about inserting agents throughout occupied Europe to make contact with resistance groups and begin a campaign of guerrilla warfare.[5]

The United States emulated this model, though unlike the British it unified the functions of both intelligence and covert action under a single agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Similar to the SOE, the special operations branch of the OSS had two principal functions: (1) the establishment and support of small bands of indigenous guerrillas under local leaders, and (2) the formation of U.S. military forces specifically trained to carry out guerrilla warfare.[6] In May 1942, 25 OSS officers – “Detachment 101” – were inserted into Burma to organize and assist the local Kachin resistance in their campaign against the Japanese occupation. As the war continued, Kachin forces expanded rapidly until there were nearly 10,000 fighters operating in conjunction with the regular allied forces in the Burma theater.[7] In Europe, the OSS utilized two different types of units. Three-man “Jedburgh” teams which operated in conjunction with local resistance groups, and platoon-sized Operational Groups that conducted guerrilla warfare  independently of local partisans. Both types of units were inserted into occupied France, Yugoslavia, and Norway, working with elements from the SOE to pressure the Germans throughout the continent and fulfill Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze.”

Assessing covert paramilitary action during World War II

The paramilitary operations that occurred during World War II were not covert as defined in the introduction; they occurred within the context of a declared war and they served as an adjunct to conventional military operations. However, they are relevant  because they provided the template that covert operations during the Cold War were based upon. After the war ended, the dramatic stories of daring-do, courage, and danger that surrounded the special operations captivated the imagination of both the public at large and government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, and helped to create the notion that covert operations were a sort of “magic bullet” able to produce decisive results where other policy instruments are not; future covert operations were intended to duplicate their success. However, the actual results of the World War II operations are debatable. The Boer War that inspired Churchill’s notion of subversive warfare occurred in a vastly different social context in which both belligerents shared a similar culture. The Boers were aware that the British value system would not permit the brutal punitive retributions that historically have been an integral part of counterinsurgency warfare.[8] Churchill assumed that Germany would abide by similar constraints in its own operations against guerrillas and partisans.[9] The Germans, however, were of a very different culture, one in which resistance to occupation was a capital crime for which the offending population was punished collectively. Added to this was the quasi-religious Nazi ideology that considered conquered peoples to be sub-human, and Germany waged brutally efficient counterinsurgency in all theaters. Populations near the site of partisan activities often suffered grievously at the hands of their vengeful German occupiers.

The military value of these operations has been the subject of intense debate since the end of the war. When compared to conventional military operations, the results achieved were marginal at best[10]; only a small fraction of German forces were dedicated to “pacification,” and most of these were 2nd-tier units unfit for frontline duty. Many of these formations were raised from the occupied populations themselves. What is not debated are the unintended consequences that the wartime support of partisan movements had for Europe in the post-war period. In the quest to tie down German forces with guerrilla warfare, the U.S. supported resistance organizations from across the political spectrum, including communist parties.[11] This practice did little more than increase the possibility of civil war as rival political movements immediately began to target one another after they realized that the German defeat was only a matter of time. After the war, France would be convulsed by internal divisions between communists, socialists, and Gaullists, with the leftist parties having been empowered by their wartime support from the Americans and British. The influence of the communist party in France would be a major issue in the early Cold War, raising the prospect that the key power of Western Europe would voluntarily fall into the Soviet orbit. In Yugoslavia, the war had not even ended before Tito’s partisans were using American and British-supplied weapons to continue their civil war against the royalist Chetniks, ultimately establishing a communist dictatorship.

Failure to consider the long-term political consequences of military decisions was a flaw in U.S. strategy throughout World War II and not just in the paramilitary operations. After the war, Gen. Omar Bradley would lament that “as soldiers we looked naively on [the] British inclination to complicate the war with political foresight and nonmilitary objectives.”[12] However, the misguided support given to resistance groups is less excusable because the negative political repercussions far outweighed any short-term military gain.

Paramilitary action during World War II highlights some important lessons on the strengths and weaknesses of covert action as an instrument of policy. Where it had the most value was its irregular warfare function, operating in support of conventional operations to tie down enemy forces, interdict lines of communications, and impede command and control. However, the marginal military results were purchased by mortgaging Europe’s political future. Paramilitary action certainly did not have a decisive influence on the outcome of the war. When U.S. policymakers during the Cold War launched covert operations that sought to replicate the World War II experience, they demonstrated their failure to understand the actual results of the operations.

Paramilitary operations in the early Cold War

Toward the end of the 1940s, U.S. policymakers found themselves in a situation similar to that facing Churchill only a few years earlier. Weakened by post-war demobilization, the U.S. was confronted by a hostile power with millennialist ambitions, poised to launch a war that would conquer Western Europe. The detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 instantly altered the dynamic and shackled U.S. strategy. Too weak to deter the Soviet Union with conventional forces, and having lost its nuclear monopoly, open confrontation with the Soviet Union was no longer an option for Washington. Neither was abandoning Europe. In these circumstances, the U.S. turned to a relatively new policy instrument for which it had high hopes. Shortly after the CIA was established in 1947, covert operations came under the jurisdiction of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), an autonomous element of the CIA that answered to the departments of State and Defense.

The results of paramilitary actions early in the Cold War demonstrate the extreme risk of such operations, something that U.S. policymakers did not understand. In 1949, British intelligence approached Washington with a proposal to unseat Enver Hoxha, the Marxist dictator of Albania. The SOE had supplied Hoxha’s partisans during the war, but he turned against his former patrons as soon as the war ended. The U.S. was receptive to the idea, considering Albania to be an isolated Soviet client that was vulnerable to subversion. The ensuing Operation Valuable involved recruiting Albanian émigrés, training them for paramilitary operations in Malta, and covertly inserting them into the country via amphibious landing and parachute.[13] Like many of the operations that followed in the years to come, the objectives of the campaign were confused. It was hoped that the émigrés would help foment a civil war that would ultimately topple Hoxha. James Macarger, an ex-Foreign Service officer that was one of the managers of the operation, has argued that the project was not meant to unseat Hoxha at all, but rather to probe and determine whether a larger campaign was possible.[14] Thus, British and American officials were dispatching émigrés into Albania without any clear idea of the objectives they were pursuing.

Operation Valuable failed catastrophically. Hoxha’s security forces ambushed every single insertion attempt. Before long, the managers realized that the operation had been compromised from within, yet it was allowed to continue four more years, with the same result time after time. It was later determined that the operation had been compromised by Kim Philby, the British counterintelligence official who was a Soviet agent. However, the operation was also compromised from within because the recruited émigrés did not undergo proper counterintelligence screenings.[15]

In the early 1950s, an escaped Polish national contacted British and American intelligence in London, informing them of an active resistance inside Poland – known as the Wolnosc I Niepodelosc (Freedom and Independence); WiN for short – that was waging a guerrilla war against Soviet forces and the local communist regime. Intrigued by the possibility of creating a partisan army astride the key invasion axis between the Soviet Union and Europe, the OPC and British SIS began air dropping weapons, supplies, and money to the Polish underground.[16] Polish agents encouraged the Americans and British to continue the operation by providing photographs of destroyed Soviet tanks, evidence that the operation was weakening the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe.[17] Then, in December 1952, official Polish radio announced that the Polish secret intelligence agency (the UB) had uncovered a Western plot to foment a rebellion. The entire project had been ensnared in a massive counterintelligence operation. In reality, the WiN had been annihilated years earlier by communist security agencies. The representatives from WiN that had manipulated U.S. and British intelligence had been captured and “turned” by the UB.[18] There was no active resistance inside Poland; it was simply a plot to ensnare and embarrass the West. Similar to Operation Valiant, the project failed due to incompetent counterintelligence on the part of the U.S. and British. Even had the WiN been real, however, the prudence of the operation was questionable. Had there been several thousand active guerrillas (very unlikely in the vast open plains of Poland), what was the U.S. seeking to accomplish? Did it really believe that a resistance movement could withstand the might of the Soviet Union and its communist allies? If not, was America truly prepared to support the resistance overtly in their struggle for liberty? And if the U.S. was not willing to do this, what purpose would the deaths of its Polish clients serve?

Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, anti-Soviet guerrillas had been waging a low-level war from their hideouts in the Carpathian Mountains since the end of World War II. Unlike Poland, this resistance movement was real, but was so weak that most of their activities were devoted to foraging for food and supplies to survive the brutal Ukrainian winters, when they stayed in their mountain caves for fear of leaving tracks in the snow. Despite their pathetic situation, U.S. and British intelligence continued to support them with air-dropped supplies, even inserting two Ukrainian émigrés that had been trained in communications to act as permanent liaisons between the partisans and Western intelligence.[19] The U.S. was under no illusions concerning the long-term potential of the Ukrainian resistance; early in the project, U.S. analysts had concluded that only overt military support offered the possibility of victory for the Ukrainian Resistance Army.[20] Unwilling to escalate this far, the U.S. continued to supply the partisans just enough to keep them alive, in an operation that involved considerable risk for the United States since the Ukraine was Soviet territory. Finally, in 1953, a massive Soviet offensive into the Carpathians exterminated what remained of the resistance.

Covert paramilitary operations in the early Cold War – including those in Albania, Poland, and the Ukraine – demonstrated the extreme risk and difficulty of such actions. Even were they to avoid penetration by enemy counterintelligence, they still had to cope with the security forces of firmly entrenched totalitarian regimes. The U.S. and Britain realized that success was impossible, yet the operations continued, concluding only after they had consumed the lives of the supported clients. Despite this horrific record of failure, some have argued that the operations were worthwhile given the geopolitical situation of the time. Open warfare was not an option, but something had to be done to contain the spread of communism and, perhaps, “roll back” the gains that the Soviets had made in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, these early operations provided the first generation of covert actioneers with critical skills and knowledge that they would use in future operations.[21]

However, with all the operations having failed, it is difficult to justify them on account of being some form of policy, when something was needed. The U.S. lost much more than minor amounts of cash and equipment; it lost some of the prestige gained during the war, a priceless commodity the value of which is often neglected in political affairs until dangerous amounts have been lost. It also lost the trust and confidence of its partisan clients; in covert paramilitary operations, it may occasionally be necessary to abandon partisans to the enemy, but when this becomes the rule rather than the exception, the U.S. no longer appears as an attractive patron and it will have difficulty supporting such operations in the future. “Superpowers, like other institutions known to us, are in the protection business. When they cannot protect clients, they lose influence, not just locally, but worldwide.”[22] The record of these actions shows that there is much truth to the quip that “the only thing that is more dangerous than being America’s enemy is to be America’s friend.”

Furthermore, the operations violated the cardinal rule of covert action: they were not part of a well-coordinated policy that included other instruments of state power; the ends sought were ill-defined or completely unrealistic for the means that were utilized. Instead, “covert action…was a substitute for well-thought-out policy, that is, clearly defined objectives, and resources and techniques calculated to achieve those objectives.”[23]

Evaluating the failures of covert action

Part of the reason that covert paramilitary operations failed so disastrously during the Cold War is that, by its very nature, paramilitary action is irregular warfare[24], and as such, falls under a well developed lore of strategy and war that the political actioneers who launched the operations were unfamiliar with. Carl von Clausewitz cautioned students of the military arts that war never achieves its pure form, reminding them that “the political aim remains the first consideration. Policy, then, will permeate all military operations, and, in so far as their violent nature will admit, it will have a continuous influence on them.”[25] However, the covert actioneers neglected the other side of Clausewitz’s teachings that “what remains peculiar to war is the peculiar nature of its means,” and that “the political aim is [not] a tyrant. It must adapt itself to its chosen means, a process which can radically alter it…[w]ar in general, and the commander in any specific instance, is entitled to require that the trend and designs of policy shall not be inconsistent with these means.”[26] Instead, CIA managers and the politicians who authorized their projects lapsed into the age-old tendency of believing “that warfare is a precise instrument for the infliction of surgical-style damage in the interest of political goals.”[27] Irregular warfare was selected as a means to pursue objectives that were ill-defined or far disproportionate to the means selected.

One of the most egregious examples of this was the operation in Indonesia in the late 1950s, when the Dulles brothers – Allen as CIA director and John Foster as Secretary of State – launched an operation against Sukarno, the communist-leaning dictator. The CIA organized a rebellion by army officers on the island of Sumatra, supporting them with weapons, supplies, money, paramilitary experts, even a CIA-piloted air force.[28] As usual, the political objectives were unclear. Apparently, overthrowing Sukarno was not the intent, nor was the victory of the rebels. The U.S. apparently wanted to coerce Sukarno into abandoning his flirtations with the communist bloc. Thus, the U.S. selected a relatively blunt policy instrument to achieve a very precise political object. Sukarno called the U.S. bluff and ordered his loyal forces against the rebels on Sumatra. The rebels were defeated shortly thereafter, and the CIA personnel remaining on the island had to trek through hundreds of miles of jungle to the coast to escape via submarine.[29]

As this and other examples demonstrate, American officials failed to properly understand the nature of irregular warfare, the tool that they were employing with such frequency. As shown by the paramilitary operations during World War II, irregular warfare only has value when it operates in conjunction with regular military operations; alone, it is unable to produce a military or political decision. Mao Tse-tung, who authored the most influential treatise on guerrilla warfare, reminded his readers that “if we view war as a whole, there can be no doubt that our regular forces are of primary importance, because it is they who are alone capable of producing the decision. Guerrilla warfare assists them in producing this favorable decision.”[30] The muddled political objectives sought by U.S. officials could not be achieved through covert paramilitary action, because the military objectives that were the prerequisite to the political decision could not be reached through irregular warfare.

However, not all covert operations were failures. In 1954, the CIA organized a coup that removed the Guatemalan government of Col. Jacobo Arbenz Guzman . The U.S. trained and equipped a small rebel army in neighboring Honduras, and prepared an air force of old World War II airplanes to fly support for the incursi0n. Arbenz resigned and fled the country shortly after the invasion began on June 18.[31] The success of this operation reenergized confidence in the covert paramilitary instrument, much as the operations during World War II did for the earlier operations. However, policymakers extracted the wrong lessons from this experience. The success of the operation in Guatemala was attributable not to its secrecy, but to its overt nature. No one doubted that the rebels were supported by the United States, and at that time, the America enjoyed a high degree of respect in that part of the world. Arbenz was convinced that Washington intended to depose him no matter what the outcome of the rebel invasion was; had he managed to defeat the rebels, he would then have to fight U.S. Marines.[32] His fears were misplaced; the U.S. had no intention of overt action. Nevertheless, the incident demonstrated the questionable value of covert operations when overt action is an available option.

Similarly, the Bay of Pigs invasion became the monumental failure that it was largely because of the unwillingness to use overt force, even when clearly in the interest of U.S. national security. To conceal the hand of the United States, President John F. Kennedy placed limitations on the operation that guaranteed failure, moving the invasion site to the remote mangrove swamps at the Bay of Pigs, and reducing the number of air strikes that were to be flown by the “rebel air force.” In short, Kennedy “was more alarmed…by the possibility of noisy success than he was by the prospect of a quiet failure, failing to see that failure itself is the noisiest thing of all.”[33] When the requirements of U.S. national security are present, limitations intended to conceal the hand of the United States are as dangerous as they are misguided.

The 1980s witnessed the advent of a new type of policy: the “overt-covert”[34] paramilitary operation, when the U.S. publicly announced that it was covertly supporting both the Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan and the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In the case of Nicaragua, the operation suffered much of the same political schizophrenia that plagued earlier ones; the Presidential findings of both the Carter and Reagan forcefully explained how the Sandinista regime was a threat to U.S. national security, but they did not specify the ends being sought by arming the Contras. Given the gravity of the threat and the highly public nature of the issue, covert action was the inappropriate instrument, apparently selected only as a means to avoid making the necessary political decisions as to whether or not the U.S. would tolerate a communist beachhead on the mainland of North America. This type of wavering indecision invited Congress to pass the Boland Amendment, which banned the CIA from covertly supporting the Contras for the purpose of overthrowing the Sandinista regime. In contrast, when Reagan publicly asked Congress to fund the Contras in 1986, the money was approved. However, as a consequence of the earlier attempts to maintain the covert program alongside the Boland Amendment, the administration became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly resulted in the impeachment of the President. Had the U.S. used an overt policy from the very beginning, the scandal would have been avoided and the Sandinistas removed from power much earlier. Instead, “the Administration preferred to thrash in this tangled web of its own weaving rather than connect the ends and means of policy.”[35]

The operation in Afghanistan did not suffer the same scandal and controversy because the Soviet occupation was overwhelmingly opposed by Congress and the U.S. public. In this case, there was an effective union between ends and means. The U.S. had no intention of “winning” in Afghanistan; rather, the objective was to bleed the Soviets as much as possible, for as long as possible. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was actually counterproductive for U.S. policy because it sealed the wound that the U.S. had been bleeding so effectively and left a chaotic political environment in the aftermath.


Covert paramilitary action is a policy instrument of extremely limited utility. Itt has often been used as a substitute for responsible strategy, with its practitioners viewing “it as a means of dodging their responsibilities as policy-makers.”[36] Due to the nature of irregular warfare, paramilitary action executed independently of regular military operations will fail. In this sense, the very concept of covert paramilitary action is somewhat of a fallacy; being “covert” often mandates that it takes place independent of overt military action, thus guaranteeing failure. Furthermore, attempts to ensure plausible deniability in these types of operations are ill-advised because the high-profile nature of the actions assures eventual revelation and all the political consequences, both domestic and international, that will follow. When U.S. policymakers find themselves in the proverbial dilemma of finding a policy between doing nothing and sending in the Marines, chances are that they would be better off either doing nothing or sending in the Marines.


It should be noted that America’s various operations against Islamist groups do not fall under the definition established at the beginning of this article. They occur within the context of a declared effort and they usually take the form of single actions, not extended paramilitary campaigns. The drone program over the frontier areas of Pakistan comes close to the definition, but it’s a stretch to define air strikes as “irregular warfare,” and in any case the program exists with the tacit permission of the Pakistani government. Indeed, America is no longer fighting the entrenched power of a totalitarian hegemon, but at worst non-state actors operating with the connivance of relatively weak states; in this geopolitical context, the utility of covert paramilitary action has increased as it is a far more cost effective instrument than overt military intervention, especially when the enemy consists of peasants armed with AK-47s. However, caution is still in order: waging unsupported and unacknowledged irregular warfare against states will fail catastrophically.

[1] Though the U.S. has studied and contemplated the use of assassination as a tool of foreign policy, and has been complicit in a small number of political killings, the U.S. in general and U.S. intelligence in particular has been historically uneasy with the idea. Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA (New York, NY: Knopf, 1979), 124-130.

[2] These generally occur in highly centralized regimes where power is held by a single individual and his immediate entourage, who have reliable control over the entire security apparatus of the state. With power concentrated in such a small number of elites, the only fractures that a coup conspiracy can exploit are within the inner circle the leader himself. See Edward Luttwak, Coup D’etat: A Practical Handbook (New York, NY: Knopf, 1969), chapter 2.

[3] G.J.A. O’Toole, Honorable Treachery (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991), 27-35.

[4] Michael Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (New York, NY: W.W.  Norton & Company, 2007), 51-77. See also A.B.C. Whipple, To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines (New York, NY: William Morrow & Co., 1991).

[5] John Keegan, Intelligence in War (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2004), 339-349.

[6] D.H. Berger, “The Use of Covert Paramilitary Activity as a Policy Tool: An Analysis of Operations Conducted by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, 1949-1951,” Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 1995. Available at:

[7] Ibid. See also John Prados, President’s Secret Wars (New York, NY: William Morrow & Co, 1986), 15-17.

[8] For elaboration on this point, see Edward Luttwak, “Dead end: counterinsurgency warfare as military malpractice,” Harper’s, February 2007.

[9] Keegan, 339-349.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Angelo Codevilla, Informing Statecraft (New York, NY: Free Press, 1992), 242.

[12] Quoted in Roy Godson, Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards: U.S. Covert Action & Counterintelligence (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007), 28.

[13] See Thomas Powers, 44-45. John Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: IL: Ivan Dee Publishers, 2006), 58-64.

[14] D.H. Berger, 16-17.

[15] Codevilla, 246-247.

[16] Powers, 41-43.

[17] D. H. Berger, 19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Powers, 43. Berger, 20-22. Prados, President’s Secret Wars, 52-58.

[20] John J. Carter, Covert Action as a Tool of Presidential Foreign Policy (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 35-36.

[21] Berger, 22.

[22] Edward Luttwak, On the Meaning of Victory: Essays on Strategy (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 290. During the 1980s, the Contras in Nicaragua were so alarmed at the possibility of being abandoned by the United States that they tried to take elaborate political and administrative measures to mitigate the consequences of such an eventuality. See Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 535-572.

[23] Godson, 48.

[24] Indeed, during World War II and the early Cold War years, the term of art used when referring to such operations was “unconventional warfare.” Berger, 12.

[25] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007), 26.

[28] Powers, 88-92.

[29] Codevilla, 256.

[30] Mao Tse-tung, On Guerilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 56.

[31] Prados, President’s Secret Wars, 98-107. Gregory F. Treverton, Covert Action: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1987), 44-84.

[32] Codevilla, 249.

[33] Powers, 113.

[34] Jeffrey T. Richelson, The U.S. Intelligence Community (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008), 413.

[35] Codevilla, 269.

[36] Ibid, 274.


4 thoughts on “Adventures in Futility: Covert Paramilitary Action as an Instrument of State Power

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks for Monday « The Committee of Public Safety

  2. My brother was a missionary in Nicaragua back in the early 00s. While wandering the back roads, he made the acquaintance of a former Sandinista fighter. This dude described how they’d wait for the rather obvious CIA airdrops to hit the ground. Then they’d shoot the contras waiting for the supplies and seize the supplies for themselves. They never used the M-16s though. Too finicky. This dude described the many times when his AK-47’s barrel got so hot from repeated firings that it glowed red hot. Yet it still kept firing. Curiously, he wanted to go fight for the Americans in Afghanistan.

  3. While I personally think that covert operations can only be considered one part of a much larger project designed specifically for the issue at hand, I must remind readers that usually we only know the details of incredible successes or failures. In cases like Africa where the U.S may be backing a faction for years or decades against another one we have little easy ability to judge its success or failure. As an example, it is fairly well known that in the mid-2000s the U.S funded Somalian warlords to fight the UIC. That is well known because Bush openly did it and because the warlords were defeated rather quickly. In contrast we don’t know as much about contacts with the Sufi militants currently fighting Al Shabab.

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