257. Memorandum From Donald Macdonald of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research to William McAfee of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1


  • Department of State Responsibility and Organization in the Covert Action Field

The purpose of this memorandum is to put down a few preliminary thoughts on State’s role in covert action of the sort contemplated in NSC Directive 5412,2 and more specifically the role of INR/DDC. I would welcome your comments on these thoughts, and particularly on the suggestions for further study at the end.

It is assumed that the necessity for appropriate covert action is accepted and requires no further argumentation; and that State Department concerns focus upon appropriateness.

1. The nature of covert action.

NSC 5412 (Top Secret) establishes six objectives of covert action (which it terms “covert operations”). All but one of them are directly aimed at “International Communism,” the covert activities of which, according to the directive, make necessary the undertaking of such activities by the U.S. The remaining objective is concerned with promoting Free World support for the U.S. as well as strengthening Free World resistance to International Communism.

Covert operations are defined in NSC 5412 as those for which U.S. Government responsibility is not evident, or can be plausibly disclaimed if they are uncovered. They include propaganda, political action; economic warfare; preventive direct action including sabotage, etc.; escape, evasion, evacuation; subversion and assistance to resistance groups; support for indigenous and anti-communist elements in threatened Free World countries; and activities to accomplish these categories. Responsibility for all these actions is given to CIA by NSC 5412, in preference to the creation of a separate agency for the purpose. Excluded are armed conflict by recognized military forces, espionage and counter-espionage, and cover and deception for military operations.

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2. The bases for concern.

The State Department’s concern for covert action might be listed under the following headings, listed in a rough priority order:

Short-term risks. Covert action, however necessary and promising of success, risks jeopardy of U.S. foreign relations and frustration of U.S. foreign policy objectives if it is exposed.
Consequences. Since the risks of covert action multiply, with scope and time, it follows that each such action if successful must have a phase-out point at which overt methods and social forces are depended upon to carry the objective forward. If these methods and forces are inadequate when the phase-out point is reached, the success of the covert action will be jeopardized or nullified.
Long-term risks. One of the basic long-run objectives of U.S. foreign policy, frequently reiterated, is to achieve the rule of law in international as well as domestic affairs. It is difficult to conceive of covert action, however necessary and justifiable, which is not in some measure antithetical to the rule of law (although the antithesis is less to the extent that the source of law in the target area is weak in popular support).
Action v. intelligence. The line between action and intelligence, although drawn by the National Security Act, the exclusions of NSC 5412, and other directives, is sometimes difficult to maintain in practice. There is a consequent concern that intelligence may be biased by the action to which it is related, and that policy will show a resultant bias.
Institutional bias. A large and highly qualified organization naturally has professional enthusiasm for projects in its competence. Covert action often promises (and can achieve) quick results. But objective scrutiny may indicate that such projects are not as necessary or desirable as their proponents believe when weighed against the costs and risks.
Civic concerns. Covert action is obviously not subject to the usual checks and balances of a free society. Witting officials concerned with covert action should therefore endeavor through their own judgments to represent the legitimate civic consciousness of the community.

3. State Department authority.

The National Security Act empowers the National Security Council to “advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security … .” and makes the Secretary of State a member of NSC. It makes CIA subject to NSC in the intelligence coordination field. NSC 5412, in giving CIA its covert action responsibilities, says that CIA is “subject to directives from [Page 553] the NSC.” The Secretary of State shares this NSC responsibility as a statutory member of it. In respect to covert action, NSC 5412 provides that designated representatives of the Secretaries of State and Defense and of the President shall be advised in advance of major covert programs and shall be the normal channel for approval and coordination.

The Department also has preeminent statutory authority, under the President, in the foreign affairs field. This has been made explicit in Presidential NSAM 341 of March 2, 1966 (Confidential): “… I have assigned to the Secretary of State authority and responsibility to the full extent permitted by law for the overall direction, coordination and supervision of inter-departmental activities of the United States Government overseas.”3

In the field, the Chief of Mission, reporting through the Department, has authority to “oversee and coordinate all the activities of the United States Government” in his country of assignment (President Kennedy’s letter of May 29, 1961).4 This authority has been interpreted to mean that in respect to espionage and clandestine counterintelligence programs, in addition to covert action projects, the Ambassador is to be made sufficiently aware of them by CIA station chiefs so that he can make an informed judgment as to the political risks involved. Differences of opinion as to whether an operation should be carried on may be referred to Washington for decision.

4. State Department organization.

At present there are three main channels between the Department and CIA in respect to covert action: the so-called “303 Committee,” the periodic conferences of regional Assistant Secretaries with their CIA counterparts, and field relations between the Ambassadors and CIA station chiefs.5 The Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs is the usual Department representative on the 303 Committee; in his responsibilities toward this Committee, he looks toward the Director of Intelligence and Research for staffing, and more specifically to the Operations Staff of the Deputy Director for Coordination (INR/DDC). The Operations Staff also participates in most meetings between regional Assistant Secretaries and the CIA. The regional bureaus of the Department, and the country directors concerned, are naturally involved in decisions on covert action, since they are primarily responsible (under the Secretary and Under Secretary) for policy coordination and decision. The working contacts [Page 554] between Ambassadors and CIA station chiefs are the finest screen for covert action projects of minor dimension.6

5. Current problems.

A quick reading of the files and of current literature, plus my own field background, would indicate that the Department’s problems in the covert action field are the following:

How to insure that the Department’s concerns, as listed in Section 2 above, are fully taken into account in undertaking covert action projects.
How to insure that the Ambassador’s overall authority in the field is safeguarded.
How to insure coordination between covert and other actions in the field of foreign policy.
How to utilize the Department’s own talents in initiating appropriate covert action projects.
Whether there are types of action, less drastic and risky, or undertaken by other agencies, which might reduce dependence upon covert action by CIA.

6. Suggestions for further study.

The following suggestions are listed in a rough priority order, in terms of what seems to me to be their significance and their likelihood of leading to useful results. They are admittedly slanted toward specific results, but study of each of them could lead to a decision to accept, reject, or investigate further.

An SOP for INR/DDC to backstop G’s primary responsibility in State for passing on covert action projects before the 303 Committee, and to monitor Assistant Secretaries’ decisions in lesser projects. I would emphasize that any really meaningful SOP should be more in terms of a consensus among the people involved than a formal detailed directive, and that it would be useful only if it were used with flexibility and imagination. Elements of such an SOP might be: [Page 555]
A set of questions, based upon the concerns listed in section 2 above and the evaluation in (2) next below, and agreed upon by members of the Operations Staff, which would be asked by INR/DDC in respect to all covert action projects. The significant answers to these questions might well be recorded.
An evaluation of all, or a significant cross-section of, covert action projects heretofore undertaken to determine whether they measured up to expectations and whether alternative approaches could have done better in terms of cost, effectiveness, and risk.
A continuing procedure to review projects in progress or completed, along the lines suggested in (2). The review could be of all projects or, more likely, of those designated for review by appropriate authority.
Establishment of criteria, in terms of risk, cost, or otherwise, to determine at what level a covert action project should be approved, and whether it merited a review procedure-either within State or by an interagency mechanism.
Communication between Ambassadors and INR on covert action projects. This might be based on (i) initial briefing of Ambassadors along the lines of the set of questions in (1) above, to help them in their own review of projects in the field, and (ii) application of the criteria in (4) above to help the Ambassador decide whether or not a given project should be referred to Washington for decision.
A policy paper on initiation of covert action projects, addressed to State’s proper role in their initiation as distinguished from their critical evaluation. My own preliminary reaction is that State should move very cautiously in encouraging any of its people to initiate such projects, because it is very difficult for an organization to approach such a sensitive subject from two opposed viewpoints at the same time, and because if covert action is really needed, the policy officers will probably come up with appropriate suggestions anyway. There are possible lines of approach: (1) an officer or a small group within INR, or possibly in another unit of State, might be charged with initiative for planning covert action projects and submitting them to the regional bureaus, the regional bureaus could be encouraged to turn to them for such projects; (2) a small group of CIA people might be physically located within State for the same purpose; (3) all Country Directors in State as they are assigned to duty might be briefed as to the general nature of covert action and encouraged to make whatever suggestions they deem appropriate directly to a designated office (e.g., INR/DDC) for evaluation, at the same time informing the Assistant Secretary concerned or his designated representative. Such initial briefings might be followed up occasionally by INR/DDC officers, although such a sensitive subject should not be put on a basis of recurring and formalized routine.
A review of NSC 5412, to determine whether State should recommend revision in the light of the concerns in Section 2 above. Three specific points might merit revision: (1) the present language which authorizes covert action not aimed at the Communist threat; (2) provisions regarding paramilitary action, recommendations for which were advanced by the Taylor Committee in 1961 and reduced to a draft by CIA; (3) the apparent exemption for inter-agency control of other than “major” covert action projects. In addition, there are miscellaneous minor changes in language which might be made, some of which were in the 1961 CIA draft revision. For example, the term “covert action” might replace “covert operations” to sharpen the distinction between intelligence and action; and some of the terms used to characterize the Communists and their activities are outdated. The decision whether to ask for NSC action to revise 5412 could be made on the basis of a draft revision and a weighing of the advantages to be derived from it against the difficulties of the exercise.
  1. Source: Department of State, INR/IL Files, NSC 5412, 1957–, Basic Document. Top Secret. Both Macdonald and McAfee worked in the Office of the Deputy Director for Coordination.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 263.
  3. Document 56.
  4. Printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1961, pp. 1345–1347.
  5. NSC 5412 also provides that in certain cases the Secretary of State may approve covert action projects without reference to other agencies, provided the President is notified. [Footnote in the source text.]
  6. In a November 14 memorandum to CIA Assistant Deputy Director for Plans, CS/Special Group Officer [name not declassified], addressed the issue of “Coordination of 303 Committee Proposals with the Department of State.” He noted, among other things, that frequently DDP Division Chiefs and regional Assistant Secretaries were unable to get together to review a proposal prior to its consideration by the 303 Committee. “Coordination then is with an official of the Bureau authorized by the regional Assistant Secretary to act for him. This, of course, means more often than not, that it is the CIA Desk Officer dealing with the Country Director. In these instances, it is often difficult for the CIA officer to find out specifically if the regional Assistant Secretary or anyone else up the line has been briefed on and has approved the proposal.” (Central Intelligence Agency, DDO/IMS Files, Job 78–5505, US Govt-Special Group)