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Note on U.S. Covert Actions

In compliance with the Foreign Relations of the United States statute that requires inclusion in the Foreign Relations series of comprehensive documentation on major foreign policy decisions and actions, the editors have identified key documents regarding major covert actions and intelligence activities. The following note will 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. It describes, on the basis of declassified documents, the changing and developing procedures during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter 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

The 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 Consequently, on June 18, 1948, a new NSC directive, NSC 10/2, superseded NSC 4–A.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 the 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 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 un[Page XLII]covered 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. The 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 the CIA’s authority over guerrilla warfare.4 The PSB was soon abolished by the incoming Eisenhower administration, but the expansion of the CIA’s covert action writ in NSC 10/5 helped ensure that covert action would remain a major function of the Agency.

As the Truman administration ended, the CIA was near the peak of its independence and authority in the field of covert action. Although the CIA continued to seek and receive advice on specific proj[Page XLIII]ects from the NSC, the PSB, and the departmental representatives originally delegated to advise the 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 the 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 the 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 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 [Page XLIV]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 that 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. The CIA units in Washington and Miami had primary responsibility for implementing Mongoose operations, which included military, sabotage, and political propaganda programs.9

President Kennedy also established a Special Group (Counter-Insurgency) on January 18, 1962, when he signed NSAM No. 124. The Special Group (CI), set up to coordinate counter-insurgency activities separate from the mechanism for implementing NSC 5412/2, was to confine itself to establishing broad policies aimed at preventing and resisting subversive insurgency and other forms of indirect aggression in friendly countries. In early 1966, in NSAM No. 341, President Johnson [Page XLV]assigned responsibility for the direction and coordination of counter-insurgency activities overseas to the Secretary of State, who established a Senior Interdepartmental Group to assist in discharging these responsibilities.10

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.11

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. The 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 the CIA should undertake an operation or that CIA actions requested by Ambassadors on the scene should be rejected.12

The effectiveness of covert action has always been difficult for any administration to gauge, given concerns about security and the difficulty of judging the impact of U.S. initiatives on events. In October 1969 the new Nixon administration required annual 303 Committee reviews for all covert actions that the Committee had approved and automatic termination of any operation not reviewed after 12 months. On February 17, 1970, President Nixon signed National Security Decision Memorandum 40,13 which superseded NSC 5412/2 and changed the name of the covert action approval group to the 40 Committee, in part because the 303 Committee had been named in the media. The Attorney General was also added to the membership of the Committee. NSDM 40 [Page XLVI]reaffirmed the DCI’s responsibility for the coordination, control, and conduct of covert operations and directed him to obtain policy approval from the 40 Committee for all major and “politically sensitive” covert operations. He was also made responsible for ensuring an annual review by the 40 Committee of all approved covert operations.

The 40 Committee met regularly early in the Nixon administration, but over time the number of formal meetings declined and business came to be conducted via couriers and telephone votes. The Committee actually met only for major new proposals. As required, the DCI submitted annual status reports to the 40 Committee for each approved operation. According to the 1976 Church Committee Final Report, the 40 Committee considered only about 25 percent of the CIA’s individual covert action projects, concentrating on major projects that provided broad policy guidelines for all covert actions. Congress received briefings on only a few proposed projects. Not all major operations, moreover, were brought before the 40 Committee: President Nixon in 1970 instructed the DCI to promote a coup d’ etat against Chilean President Salvador Allende without Committee coordination or approval.14

Presidential Findings Since 1974 and the Operations Advisory Group

The Hughes-Ryan amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 brought about a major change in the way the U.S. Government approved covert actions, requiring explicit approval by the President for each action and expanding Congressional oversight and control of the CIA. The CIA was authorized to spend appropriated funds on covert actions only after the President had signed a “finding” and informed Congress that the proposed operation was important to national security.15

Executive Order 11905, issued by President Ford on February 18, 1976, in the wake of major Congressional investigations of CIA activities by the Church and Pike Committees, replaced the 40 Committee with the Operations Advisory Group, composed of the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the DCI, who retained responsibility for the planning and implementation of covert operations. The OAG was required to hold formal meetings to develop recommendations for the President regarding a covert action and to conduct periodic reviews of previously-approved operations. EO 11905 also banned all U.S. Government employees from involvement in polit[Page XLVII]ical assassinations, a prohibition that was retained in succeeding executive orders, and prohibited involvement in domestic intelligence activities.16

Approval and oversight requirements for covert action continued to be governed by the Hughes-Ryan amendment well into the Carter administration, even as the new administration made alterations to the executive branch’s organizational structure for covert action. President Carter retained the NSC as the highest executive branch organization to review and guide U.S. foreign intelligence activities. As part of a broader NSC reorganization at the outset of his administration, President Carter replaced the Operations Advisory Group (OAG) with the NSC’s Special Coordination Committee (SCC), which explicitly continued the same operating procedures as the former OAG.17 Membership of the SCC, when meeting for the purpose of reviewing and making recommendations on covert actions (as well as sensitive surveillance activities), replicated that of the former OAG—namely: the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; the Secretaries of State and Defense; the Director of Central Intelligence; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Attorney General and Director of the Office of Management and Budget (the latter two as observers). The designated chairman of all SCC meetings was the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Carter formalized the SCC’s replacement of the OAG in EO 11985 of May 13, 1977, which amended President Ford’s EO 11905 on “United States Foreign Intelligence activities.”18 In practice, the SCC for covert action and sensitive surveillance activities came to be known as the SCC (Intelligence) or the SCC-I, to distinguish it from other versions of the SCC.

The SCC’s replacement of the OAG was reaffirmed in E.O. 12036 of January 24, 1978, which replaced E.O. 11905 and its amendments. E.O. 12036 also reaffirmed the same membership for the SCC-I, but identified the Attorney General and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget as full members of the Committee, rather than merely observers.

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Also in the first days of the Carter administration, the SCC-I established a lower-level working group to study and review proposals for covert action and other sensitive intelligence matters and report to the SCC-I. This interagency working group was chaired by the Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (David Aaron), or in his absence, the NSC Director for Intelligence Coordination. The working group was named the Special Activities Working Group (SAWG). The SAWG was active in early Carter administration reviews of ongoing covert action, and remained active through at least 1978. NSC officials in mid-1978 sought to downgrade or abolish the SAWG and replace it as needed with ad hoc working groups. Internal NSC reviews at the end of the Carter administration state that the SAWG gradually fell out of use. By late 1979, the means for debating, developing, and guiding certain covert actions was an interagency working group chaired by Aaron at the NSC. This group was referred to by several names during the late Carter administration, including the Deputy’s (or Deputies) group, the Aaron group, the interagency group, the Black Chamber, and the Black Room.

The Carter administration made use of a new category of presidential findings for “world-wide” or “general” (or “generic”) covert operations. This continued a practice initiated late in the Ford administration in response to the Hughes-Ryan requirement for presidential findings. The worldwide category covered lower-risk operations that were directed at broad policy goals implemented on a worldwide basis as assets allowed. These operations utilized existing assets as well as existing liaison contacts with foreign intelligence or security services, and in some cases also consisted of routine training or procurement undertaken to assist foreign intelligence partners or other agencies of the USG. A new type of document—known as “Perspectives”—provided more specific tasking guidance for these general, worldwide covert activities. Perspectives detailed the themes to be stressed in furtherance of a particular policy goal. Riskier operations required their own presidential finding or Memorandum of Notification (see below). Perspectives were drafted by the CIA and cleared by the Department of State, so that the CIA could vet the operational feasibility and risks of the program while State could assess the diplomatic risks and verify that the program was consistent with overall foreign policy goals. At least initially, Perspectives did not require further coordination with the OAG, SCC, or the President. Once an agreed-upon Perspectives document was finalized by CIA and the Department of State, it was transmitted to the field, and posts were required to make periodic reports on any achievements under the Perspectives guidelines. Beginning in 1978, actions in this worldwide category were authorized by the President as specific line-item additions to a previously existing “world-wide” finding, though Perspectives were still used to provide additional details.

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Another new document used during the Carter administration was the “Memorandum of Notification” (MON). MONs were initially used to introduce higher-risk, significantly higher-cost, or more geographically-specific operations under a previously-approved worldwide or general objective outlined19 in a Perspectives document. Like Perspectives, MONs had to be coordinated between the CIA and the Department of State, but they also required broader interagency coordination within the SAWG or SCC. MONs subsequently came to be used for significant changes to any type of finding, not just worldwide ones. Entirely new covert actions continued to require new presidential findings. The Hughes-Ryan amendment stipulated that Congress be notified of new findings “in a timely fashion,” but did not specify how much time that meant. During the Carter administration, the CIA typically notified Congress of new covert initiatives within 48 hours, including those outlined in Perspectives or MONs.

In October 1980, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1981—also known as the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980—scaled back the Hughes-Ryan amendment’s provisions for congressional oversight of covert action. While the requirement to notify Congress about presidential findings remained in place, the new Act limited the committees of Congress that had to be briefed to the two intelligence committees, and also explicitly clarified that this requirement to keep the committees “fully and currently informed” did not constitute a requirement for congressional approval of covert action or other intelligence activities. Moreover, the new Act stipulated that if the President determined it was “essential to limit prior notice to meet extraordinary circumstances affecting vital interests of the United States,” the President could limit prior notice to the chairmen and ranking minority members of the two intelligence committees, the Speaker and minority leader of the House, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate-a group that came to be known as the “Gang of Eight.” If prior notice of a covert action was withheld, the President was required to inform the two intelligence committees “in a timely fashion” and provide a statement of the reasons for not giving prior notice.20

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  1. NSC 4–A, December 17, 1947, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1945–1950, Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment, Document 257.
  2. NSC 10/2, June 18, 1948, is printed ibid., Document 292.
  3. Memorandum of conversation by Frank G. Wisner, “Implementation of NSC–10/2,” August 12, 1948, is printed ibid., Document 298.
  4. NSC 10/5, “Scope and Pace of Covert Operations,” October 23, 1951, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1950–1955, The Intelligence Community, Document 90.
  5. William M. Leary, editor, The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents (The University of Alabama Press, 1984), p. 63; for text of NSC 5412, see Foreign Relations, 1950–1955, The Intelligence Community, Document 171.
  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. For texts of NSC 5412/1 and NSC 5412/2, see Foreign Relations, 1950–1955, The Intelligence Community, Documents 212 and 250.
  7. Leary, The Central Intelligence Agency: History and Documents, p. 63.
  8. Ibid., p. 82.
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume X, Cuba, 1961–1962, Documents 270 and 278.
  10. For text of NSAM No. 124, see ibid., volume VIII, National Security Policy, Document 68. NSAM No. 341, March 2, 1966, is printed ibid., 1964–1968, volume XXXIII, Organization and Management of U.S. Foreign Policy; United Nations, Document 56.
  11. For text of NSAM No. 303, see ibid., Document 204.
  12. 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.
  13. For text of NSDM 40, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume II, Organization and Management of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969–1972, Document 203 .
  14. 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. 54–55, 57.
  15. Public Law 93–559.
  16. Executive Order 11905, “United States Foreign Intelligence Activities,” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Vol. 12, No. 8, February 23, 1976.
  17. The broader NSC reorganization sought to reduce the number of NSC committees to two: the Policy Review Committee (PRC) and the Special Coordination Committee (SCC). The SCC’s jurisdiction included all intelligence policy issues other than annual budget and priorities reviews; the SCC also had jurisdiction over other, nonintelligence matters. Presidential Directive 2, “The National Security Council System,” January 20, 1977, Carter Library, Vertical File, Presidential Directives. See also Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Advisor 1977-1981 (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1983), pp. 59–62.
  18. Executive Order 11985, “United States Foreign Intelligence Activities,” May 13, 1977, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Vol. 13, No. 20 (May 16, 1977), pp. 719–720.
  19. Executive Order 12036, “United States Foreign Intelligence Activities,” January 24, 1978, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Vol. 14, No. 4 (January 30, 1978), pp. 194–214. Since E.O. 12036 governed foreign intelligence activities, all references in the E.O. to the “SCC” were effectively references to what was known in practice as the SCC (Intelligence), or SCC-I.
  20. PL 96-450, Sec. 407 (October 14, 1980). See also the description of the Hughes-Ryan amendment and its replacement by PL 96-450 in: Richard A. Best, Jr., “Covert Action: Legislative Background and Possible Policy Questions,” Congressional Research Service, RL33715, December 27, 2011, pp. 1–2; and L. Britt Snider, The Agency and the Hill: CIA’S Relationship with Congress, 1946–2004, Washington: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 2008, pp. 280–81.