A Short Note on Covert Action as a Policy Tool

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Although largely understudied because of its secretive nature, covert action is often used as a policy tool. It is an arm of state power which like diplomacy and military power can be used to assist actors in shaping reality.

As much as it has been in the public eye of late, covert action isn’t limited to modern western democracies, but has been around since the formation of early states and societies where it was employed as a common tool of statecraft. Ancient Romans used clandestine operations, covert action, political assassinations and paramilitary operations as a regular part of their foreign policy as did the ancient Syrians, South Asians, Greeks and Arabs. But, the first written works on intelligence and the application of covert action weren’t written in ancient Greece or Rome, they were found on the Indian subcontinent (The Arthashasthra, attributed to Kautilya) and in ancient China (The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tsu, or Master Sun).

Covert operations in these societies were used as a skillful means to avoid active warfare, since both tacticians recommended cultivating relationships rather than engaging in costly military campaigns. “If the end could be achieved by non-military methods, even by methods of intrigue, duplicity and fraud, I would not advocate an armed conflict,” advises Kautilya, while Master Sun prescribes that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

In the Arthashasthra, (circa 150 CE), Kautilya asserts that a “single assassin can achieve with weapons or fire or poison more than a fully mobilized army.” Likewise, Christopher Andrews (a few millennia later)..in his book The History of Intelligence, notes that had Richard Bissell (CIA’s then Director of Plans) read the Arthashastra, perhaps the Americans would have had a better chance of assassinating Fidel Castro in 1960; simply by heeding its advice on the careful selection process required for recruiting assassins.

However, covert action is not policy. Rory Cormac, a professor and historian of intelligence studies argues, “it's a means of executing policy.” It also makes an attractive instrument of state power because it allows democracies (as well as authoritarian governments) to maintain a hegemonic role in global affairs in which secret operations are used to influence the world “by hidden hands.”

Some of these operations are easier to discover, especially when they fail, but successful covert actions are those that no one knows have been conducted. These special operations, disruptive actions, active measures or covert actions, (used interchangeably, although there are important technological differences) allow governments to assert power by considering various geostrategic roles, whether by keeping a conflict from escalating or by seeking to maintain their reputations, both nationally and abroad.

A recent example of covert action is the US effort to train and supply weapons to the ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria (Operation Timber Sycamore), in which rebels trained, funded and armed by the CIA (with the assistance of allied intelligence agencies) were used to unseat the President of Syria, Bashar al Assad. The more well acknowledged is Operation Cyclone, in which the US and its allies trained the Mujahideen on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in their fight against the ideology of communism. The former operation was unsuccessful while the latter assisted in dismantling the Soviet Union.


Andrews, Christopher. “The History of Intelligence,” 2018. Yale University Press.

Carson, Austin & Poznansky Michael. “The Logic for (Shoddy) U.S. Covert Action in Syria,” 2016. War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/the-logic-for-shoddy-u-s-covert-action-in-syria/

Cormac, Rory. “Disruption and Deniable Interventionism: Explaining
the Appeal of Covert Action and Special Forces In Contemporary
British Policy”, International Relations, vol. 3 no. 2, 2017, pp. 169–191.

Kautilya’s Arthashasthra. Translated into English by R. Shamasastry. Bangalore. Government Press. 1915.

Pear, Robert. “Arming Afghan Guerrillas: A Huge Effort Led by the U.S.” Archives. The New York Times. April 18, 1988.

Scott, Len. “Secret Intelligence, Covert Action and Clandestine
Diplomacy,” Intelligence and National Security. 19,2 (2004).

Sheldon, Rose Mary. “The ancient imperative: clandestine operations and covert action,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence. 10:3, 299–315, (2017).

Sun Tsu. “The Art of War.” translated by John Minford. Published by the Penguin Group. 2006

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