U.S. Covert Actions and Counter-Insurgency Programs

In compliance with the Foreign Relations of the United States statute to include in the Foreign Relations series comprehensive documentation on major foreign policy decisions and actions, the editors have sought to present essential documents regarding major covert actions and intelligence activities. In order to provide readers with some organizational context on how covert actions and special intelligence operations in support of U.S. foreign policy were planned and approved within the U.S. Government, the following note is offered. It describes, on the basis of previously-declassified documents, the changing and developing procedures during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Presidencies.

Management of Covert Actions in the Truman Presidency

The Truman administration’s concern over Soviet “psychological warfare” prompted the new National Security Council to authorize, in NSC 4–A of December 1947, the launching of peacetime covert action operations. NSC 4–A made the Director of Central Intelligence responsible for psychological warfare, establishing at the same time the principle that covert action was an exclusively Executive Branch function. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) certainly was a natural choice but it was assigned this function at least in part because the Agency controlled unvouchered funds, by which operations could be funded with minimal risk of exposure in Washington.1

CIA’s early use of its new covert action mandate dissatisfied officials at the Departments of State and Defense. The Department of State, believing this role too important to be left to the CIA alone and concerned that the military might create a new rival covert action office in the Pentagon, pressed to reopen the issue of where responsibility for covert action activities should reside. Consequently, on June 18, 1948, a new NSC directive, NSC 10/2, superseded NSC 4–A.

NSC 10/2 directed CIA to conduct “covert” rather than merely “psychological” operations, defining them as all activities “which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign [Page XLII] states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”

The type of clandestine activities enumerated under the new directive included: “propaganda; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberations [sic] groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world. Such operations should not include armed conflict by recognized military forces, espionage, counter-espionage, and cover and deception for military operations.2

The Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), newly established in the CIA on September 1, 1948, in accordance with NSC 10/2, assumed responsibility for organizing and managing covert actions. OPC, which was to take its guidance from the Department of State in peacetime and from the military in wartime, initially had direct access to the State Department and to the military without having to proceed through CIA’s administrative hierarchy, provided the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was informed of all important projects and decisions.3 In 1950 this arrangement was modified to ensure that policy guidance came to OPC through the DCI.

During the Korean conflict the OPC grew quickly. Wartime commitments and other missions soon made covert action the most expensive and bureaucratically prominent of CIA’s activities. Concerned about this situation, DCI Walter Bedell Smith in early 1951 asked the NSC for enhanced policy guidance and a ruling on the proper “scope and magnitude” of CIA operations. The White House responded with two initiatives. In April 1951 President Truman created the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) under the NSC to coordinate government-wide psychological warfare strategy. NSC 10/5, issued in October 1951, reaffirmed the covert action mandate given in NSC 10/2 and expanded CIA’s authority over guerrilla warfare.4 The PSB was soon abolished by the incoming Eisenhower administration, but the expansion of CIA’s covert action writ in NSC 10/5 helped ensure that covert action would remain a major function of the Agency.

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As the Truman administration ended, CIA was near the peak of its independence and authority in the field of covert action. Although CIA continued to seek and receive advice on specific projects from the NSC, the PSB, and the departmental representatives originally delegated to advise OPC, no group or officer outside of the DCI and the President himself had authority to order, approve, manage, or curtail operations.

NSC 5412 Special Group; 5412/2 Special Group; 303 Committee

The Eisenhower administration began narrowing CIA’s latitude in 1954. In accordance with a series of National Security Council directives, the responsibility of the Director of Central Intelligence for the conduct of covert operations was further clarified. President Eisenhower approved NSC 5412 on March 15, 1954, reaffirming the Central Intelligence Agency’s responsibility for conducting covert actions abroad. A definition of covert actions was set forth; the DCI was made responsible for coordinating with designated representatives of the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense to ensure that covert operations were planned and conducted in a manner consistent with U.S. foreign and military policies; and the Operations Coordinating Board was designated the normal channel for coordinating support for covert operations among State, Defense, and CIA. Representatives of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the President were to be advised in advance of major covert action programs initiated by the CIA under this policy and were to give policy approval for such programs and secure coordination of support among the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA.5

A year later, on March 12, 1955, NSC 5412/1 was issued, identical to NSC 5412 except for designating the Planning Coordination Group as the body responsible for coordinating covert operations. NSC 5412/2 of December 28, 1955, assigned to representatives (of the rank of assistant secretary) of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the President responsibility for coordinating covert actions. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, this group, which became known as the “NSC 5412/2 Special Group” or simply “Special Group,” emerged as the executive body to review and approve covert action programs initiated by the CIA.6 The membership of the Special Group varied depending [Page XLIV] upon the situation faced. Meetings were infrequent until 1959 when weekly meetings began to be held. Neither the CIA nor the Special Group adopted fixed criteria for bringing projects before the group; initiative remained with the CIA, as members representing other agencies frequently were unable to judge the feasibility of particular projects.7

After the Bay of Pigs failure in April 1961, General Maxwell Taylor reviewed U.S. paramilitary capabilities at President Kennedy’s request and submitted a report in June which recommended strengthening high-level direction of covert operations. As a result of the Taylor Report, the Special Group, chaired by the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, and including Deputy Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Lyman Lemnitzer, assumed greater responsibility for planning and reviewing covert operations. Until 1963 the DCI determined whether a CIA-originated project was submitted to the Special Group. In 1963 the Special Group developed general but informal criteria, including risk, possibility of success, potential for exposure, political sensitivity, and cost (a threshold of $25,000 was adopted by the CIA), for determining whether covert action projects were submitted to the Special Group.8

From November 1961 to October 1962 a Special Group (Augmented), whose membership was the same as the Special Group plus Attorney General Robert Kennedy and General Taylor (as Chairman), exercised responsibility for Operation Mongoose, a major covert action program aimed at overthrowing the Castro regime in Cuba. When President Kennedy authorized the program in November, he designated Brigadier General Edward G. Lansdale, Assistant for Special Operations to the Secretary of Defense, to act as chief of operations, and Lansdale coordinated the Mongoose activities among the CIA and the Departments of State and Defense. CIA units in Washington and Miami had primary responsibility for implementing Mongoose operations, which included military, sabotage, and political propaganda programs.9

NSAM No. 303, June 2, 1964, from Bundy to the Secretaries of State and Defense and the DCI, changed the name of “Special Group 5412” to “303 Committee” but did not alter its composition, functions, or responsibility. Bundy was the chairman of the 303 Committee.10

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The Special Group and the 303 Committee approved 163 covert actions during the Kennedy administration and 142 during the Johnson administration through February 1967. The 1976 Final Report of the Church Committee, however, estimated that of the several thousand projects undertaken by the CIA since 1961, only 14 percent were considered on a case-by-case basis by the 303 Committee and its predecessors (and successors). Those not reviewed by the 303 Committee were low-risk and low-cost operations. The Final Report also cited a February 1967 CIA memorandum that included a description of the mode of policy arbitration of decisions on covert actions within the 303 Committee system. CIA presentations were questioned, amended, and even on occasion denied, despite protests from the DCI. Department of State objections modified or nullified proposed operations, and the 303 Committee sometimes decided that some agency other than CIA should undertake an operation or that CIA actions requested by Ambassadors on the scene should be rejected.11

Special Group (Counter-Insurgency)

In March 1961 early in the administration of President Kennedy, a Counter-Guerrilla Task Force under CIA Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell was set up. In December the Bissell Task Force completed its report “Elements of US Strategy To Deal With Wars of National Liberation.” NSC Staff member Robert Komer proposed to Bundy that “high-level responsibility” for coordinating counter-insurgency activities should be assigned to ”Taylor and the Special Group,” separate from the mechanism for implementing NSC 5412/2.12

On January 18, 1962, President Kennedy signed NSAM No. 124, which established the Special Group (Counter-Insurgency) to be composed of the Military Representative of the President (Taylor) as Chairman, the Attorney General, Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of Central Intelligence, the President’s Special Assist-ant for National Security Affairs, and the Administrator of AID. The task of Special Group (CI) would be “to assure unity of effort and the use of all available resources with maximum effectiveness in preventing and resisting subversive insurgency and related forms of indirect aggression in friendly countries.” The Special Group (CI) was to confine itself to establishing broad policies and give oversight to country or regional interagency [Page XLVI] task forces. An annex to NSAM No. 124 assigned Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos to the initial cognizance of the Special Group (CI).13

The Special Group (CI) held its first meeting on January 18, 1962, and subsequently held weekly 2-hour meetings with no substitute members allowed. Although members may have preferred that the Special Group (CI) act as a separate executive body to carry out its decisions, the decisions were coordinated with the various executive departments and agencies within the existing chain of command. General Taylor served as Chairman until he became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1962 when Deputy Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson succeeded him.14

Throughout much of 1962, Special Group (CI) received extensive briefings on the situations in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Iran, Indonesia, and other countries faced with what the Group regarded as “internal defense problems.” After much debate and interagency drafting, an agreed Special Group (CI) policy statement on counter-insurgency was set forth in a State Department report of September 1962, entitled “United States Overseas Internal Defense Policy.” The policy expressed in the report, which was approved by President Kennedy in NSAM No. 182, included the presumption that counter-insurgency programs (referred to as “internal defense programs” in the report) should not be limited to military measures but should also involve as necessary such additional dimensions as economic development, police control, and effective local government.15

In the course of its existence until 1966, Special Group (CI) spurred the establishment of extensive training courses on counter-insurgency throughout the government; promoted the responsibility of inter-agency “country teams” in the countries concerned to develop “Internal Defense Plans;” examined and reshaped programs for advising, supplying, and training paramilitary and military forces in developing countries; encouraged the redirection and expansion of government programs to equip police forces in developing countries; agreed on programs to encourage the local military in these countries to undertake their own “civic action” programs; asked for additional government weapons research for counter-insurgency operations; urged the Agency for International Development to coordinate economic assistance programs [Page XLVII] with military civic action programs; and urged the CIA to increase its intelligence and counter intelligence activity in target countries.16

On October 15, 1963, General Taylor, signing as Chairman of the JCS, addressed a memorandum to members of the Special Group (CI) entitled “U.S. Support of Foreign Paramilitary Forces,” which concluded that U.S. policy to support the Honduran Civil Guard had resulted in the overthrow of the constitutional government. Taylor observed that the Honduras experience suggested that U.S. programs in other countries should be reviewed to determine whether similar potentially dangerous situations were being fostered, and he recommended that “interagency working groups which monitor internal defense plans” review these programs and report to the Special Group (CI).17

On January 17, 1966, General Taylor wrote to President Johnson recommending that the Special Group (CI) “be converted into an agency for supporting the Secretary of State in discharging his broadened responsibilities for the direction, coordination, and supervision of overseas affairs.” In NSAM No. 341, March 2, 1966, President Johnson assigned to the Secretary of State the “authority and responsibility to the full extent permitted by law for the overall direction, coordination, and supervision of interdepartmental [counter subversion] activities of the United States government overseas.” A Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG), chaired by the Under Secretary of State, was established to assist the Secretary of State in discharging his responsibilities. Assistant Secretaries of State would chair interdepartmental regional groups (IRGs) within the SIG structure to coordinate regional planning and actions.18

W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the former Special Group (CI), wrote on March 7, 1966, to Under Secretary George Ball that “real progress has been made in that field. We have learned from mistakes and know considerably more about the matters on which to concentrate.”19 Counter-insurgency doctrine in the areas supervised by the Secretary of State was re-defined in a SIG-approved paper of May 23, 1968.20

  1. NSC 4–A, December 17, 1947, printed in Foreign Relations, 1945–1950, Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment, Document 257.
  2. NSC 10/2, June 18, 1948, printed ibid., Document 292.
  3. Memorandum of conversation by Frank G. Wisner, “Implementation of NSC-10/2,” August 12, 1948, printed ibid., Document 298.
  4. NSC 10/5, “Scope and Pace of Covert Operations,” October 23, 1951, in Michael Warner, editor, The CIA Under Harry Truman (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1994), pp. 437–439.
  5. William M. Leary, editor, The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents (The University of Alabama Press, 1984), p. 63; the text of NSC 5412 will be printed in Foreign Relations, 1950–1960, Development of the Intelligence Establishment, scheduled for publication in 2000.
  6. Leary, The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents, pp. 63, 147–148; Final Report of the Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, Book I, Foreign and Military Intelligence (1976), pp. 50–51. The texts of NSC 5412/1 and NSC 5412/2 will be printed in Foreign Relations, 1950–1960, Development of the Intelligence Community, scheduled for publication in 2000.
  7. Leary, The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents, p. 63.
  8. Ibid., p. 82.
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. X, Documents 270 and 278.
  10. Text of NSAM No. 303 will be printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. X, scheduled for publication in 2000.
  11. Final Report of the Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate Book I, Foreign and Military Intelligence, pp. 56–57.
  12. Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vols. VII, VIII, IX, Microfiche Supplement, Document 249, and Richard M. Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 149.
  13. For text of NSAM No. 124, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. VIII, Document 68.
  14. Memorandum by McCone, August 17, 1962, published ibid., 1961–1963, vols. VII, VIII, IX, Microfiche Supplement, Document 277, and U. Alexis Johnson, The Right Hand of Power (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1984), p. 330.
  15. “United States Overseas Internal Defense Policy,” September 1962, and NSAM No. 182 are printed, respectively, in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vols. VII, VIII, IX, Microfiche Supplement, Document 279, and ibid., vol. VIII, Document 105.
  16. See Johnson, The Right Hand of Power, pp. 330–339.
  17. Memorandum from Taylor to Special Group (CI), October 15, 1963, published in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vols. VII, VIII, IX, Microfiche Supplement, Document 300.
  18. Memorandum from Taylor to President Johnson, January 17, 1966, NSAM No. 341, and other documentation on the origins of the SIG will be printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XXXIII, scheduled for publication in 2000.
  19. Scheduled for publication ibid.
  20. Editorial note to be printed ibid., vol. X, scheduled for publication in 2000.