A Starting Point


The literature on covert action as a tool of national security policy is extensive and diverse. Presented here are some of the better general works on the subject; they represent nothing more than -- as the file title states -- a starting point.

Daugherty, William J. Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Clark comment: Although the author works much too hard in making his point that covert action is a tool of U.S. Presidents, not just of the CIA, this is a fine book of great value to any future discussion of the role of covert action in the making and implementing of American national security policy. It is, however, terribly thin on discussion of the Presidents since Reagan, an effect no doubt of the fact that Daugherty knew too much for the CIA to clear any references to unacknowledged actions. If I were teaching a national security or intelligence-related course at this time, Executive Secrets would be of great assistance. [Additional reviews at Daugherty]

Godson, Roy. Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards: U.S. Covert Action and Counterintelligence. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1995. JK468I6G62 Washington, DC: Transaction, 2001.

Clark Comment: Godson defines covert action as "influencing events in other parts of the world without revealing or acknowledging involvement." He defines counterintelligence as "identifying, neutralizing, and exploiting the intelligence activities of others." (p. xii) In this book, he traces the evolution of the practice of covert action and counterintelligence in the United States since 1945, develops some "ideal" principles and techniques for such practices, and analyzes the ongoing gap between principle and practice. The most disconcerting aspect of the book is the author's unusual packaging together of covert action and counterintelligence, two very different intelligence disciplines. [Additional reviews at Godson]

Prados, John. Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.

Clark comment: This work began life as The Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II, published in 1986 with 480 pages. It saw renewed life as Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II Through the Persian Gulf War, published in 1996 with 576 pages. This version drops the more accurate title that clearly identifies the real begin point for covert "wars" -- U.S. Presidents -- for the presumably more saleable subtitle of Secret Wars of the CIA, with neither presidents nor the Pentagon seemingly interesting enough to make it into the title or subtitle. In addition, the work has now grown to 752 pages. [Additional reviews at Prados]

Treverton, Gregory F. Covert Action: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World. New York: Basic Books, 1987. JK468I6T72 Covert Action: The CIA and the Limits of American Intervention in the Postwar World. New York: I.B. Tauris, 1988.

Clark comment: Treverton's basic conclusion is difficult to argue with: In the 1990s "[m]ajor covert actions will become public -- sooner rather than later, and perhaps even before the operation is over." The question remains, however, just what this means to the future use of covert operations as an instrument of U.S. policy. [Additional reviews at Treverton]

Twentieth Century Fund. The Need to Know: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Covert Action and American Democracy. With a background paper by Allan E. Goodman and Bruce D. Berkowitz. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1992.

Woodward, Bob. Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. New York: Pocket Books, 1988. [pb] UB351U5W66

Simmons, IJI&C 2.2, argues that Woodward's "errors of fact ... are few and far between and, more often than not, involve narrative embellishments of a situation rather than mistakes in substance.... Probably the greatest value ... are his brilliant descriptions of the bureaucratic conflict between the legislative and executive branches in the arena of U.S. intelligence activities.... He captures the flavor of this struggle." [Additional reviews at Woodward]

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