80. Memorandum From Paul Henze of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Covert Action and the “In Extremis” Doctrine (U)

No foreign policy concept has been more persistent in this Administration and more mistaken than the “in extremis” approach to covert action. I recall Cy Vance at one of the earliest SCC reviews of covert activity in February 1977 stating that he did not want anyone to think that he was totally against covert activity—but he felt we should engage in it very seldom and only in limited fashion and under the most unusual circumstances when fundamental U.S. interests were in serious danger. He went on to say that he felt we should maintain some covert capability but we should use it very seldom. This Vance view was readily accepted in State; we hear it all the time. It fits comfortably into a broader State approach to foreign policy—the notion that whether action is overt or covert, it should always be minimal, (if it cannot be avoided at all) taken only after long deliberation and delay and never be very comprehensive or sustained. Suaviter in modo; suaviter in re! Pas trop de zèle! 2 Unfortunately the Vance view of covert action has also been echoed over and over again by other Administration spokesmen and there is still a sizable—though apparently contracting—body of opinion in Congress which shares it. (C)

Not only is this view mistaken, it is dangerous. If one were to apply the same principle to the practice of medicine it would go something like this: do not treat the patient until he is near death; then spare no effort to demonstrate that you have tried to save him! Covert action becomes a form of extreme unction—it may save the soul but the body perishes; but at least the next of kin feel virtuous . . . (U)

A great deal was learned from a generation of covert action experience. These were some of the lessons:

• The sooner you begin to work on a potential problem the better are your chances of success.

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• Careful preparation reduces costs and risks.

• Effective covert action must be based on solid knowledge—both of the situation you are working on and the people you use to work on it; i.e. you need intelligence.

In other words, an ounce of prevention may be worth many pounds of cure. There are other lessons too:

• Covert action need not be taken by Americans—it may be more effective if we use other nationalities as action instrumentalities.

• Various forms of institution building are often especially effective as covert action techniques.

• There are different degrees of covertness in covert action—sometimes it is only the impetus that needs to be kept secret; sometimes the funds; sometimes everything but the final result; occasionally even the final result. (C)

If you wait until the last minute to take covert action (or any kind of action for that matter) you are much less likely to do it well—you are also likely to spend (i.e. waste) much more in money and manpower than you otherwise might do and you greatly increase the risk of (a) exposure and (b) failure because of haste and lack of preparation. (U)

The never-large and (compared to other U.S. Government programs) never costly CIA covert action structure that was built up in the 1950’s and continued through the 1960’s, but which has since been largely disbanded, was always far from perfect but a great deal was learned from practice and a wide variety of flexible capabilities was developed. Covert support of organizations ranging from labor unions, professional associations and student groups [2 lines not declassified] and many kinds of training and research organizations provided a capability for sending experts in to any area or situation to diagnose problems, size up action opportunities and assess people with whom we could work. Many of the most effective people used for these tasks were not Americans [less than 1 line not declassified] (C)

Exposés, self-righteous clamor, congressional action and various kinds of wilful self-emasculation have deprived us of almost all these capabilities. About all that is left is a worldwide press-placement network, a few consultants and an over-age platoon or so of PM types. Calls for “covert action” in recent years have often resulted in not much more happening than insertion of an article in a [less than 1 line not declassified] newspaper, e.g., as a means of “countering” Communist penetration of the Horn of Africa. This may foster the comforting illusion that we are doing something about a situation we don’t like but real impact on events has been next to nil. And to require a Presi[Page 374]dential Finding to do even this kind of thing reduces the concept to banality.3 (C)

Another part of the current covert action problem is the persistent illusion—still very strong in State—that there are hundreds if not thousands of officers in CIA thirsting to undertake covert programs in every corner of the world: to overthrow governments, commit assassinations, manipulate politicians, foment riots and embarrass and harass Communists and other undesirable elements. This assumption is utterly false. CIA has very few covert action personnel left. A large portion of its most experienced officers have been fired or retired and those who remain have little stomach for taking risks. It would be hard to find a CIA operations officer who has not personally experienced the embarrassment which exposures and revelations have caused for field agents (including at times their imprisonment or death) and the reluctance of foreign intelligence services to cooperate fully with us when they fear their collaboration will be exposed and cause them embarrassment, or worse, in their own country. Concepts of responsibility and honor are as high among CIA officers as among any group in the U.S. government. For this very reason, they can no longer be persuaded to display enthusiasm and ingenuity in devising covert action plans when they are not confident of their ability to execute them effectively. Stan Turner gives the impression of greater covert capabilities than CIA actually possesses. This may be in part because he is reluctant to admit the damage his personnel policies have done to the DDO; it may also be that he actually understands so little of the prerequisites for effective covert action that he does not realize how limited his Agency’s covert capability has become. (C)

CIA can still muster some covert capability, but its resources are severely limited and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that it can undertake very much, or can sustain several programs over any period of time without substantial augmentation of resources and talent. (U)

In time, and with proper leadership, a genuinely effective covert action capability can be built up again in CIA. The current trend is still downward and a marked further decline will occur at the end of this calendar year when another wave of retirements occurs. (U)

There are three prerequisites for reestablishing a real covert action capability in the U.S. Government:

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(1) abandonment of the “in extremis” doctrine and quiet reestablishment of the principle that covert action is a regular part of the spectrum of foreign policy actions for which the U.S. Government maintains permanent capabilities.

(2) Repeal/revision of present restrictive legislation and extensive reporting requirements which almost guarantee that covert action efforts, even those of modest and preliminary (i.e. preventive) scope, will become public knowledge.

(3) Restoration of CIA capabilities to plan and execute covert action programs on a continuing basis; provision for retention, recruitment and training of talented officers and creation of a working atmosphere which brings the best in creativity and performance out of them. (C)

From these prerequisites other actions follow naturally: ambassadors must be deprived of the veto power they now have over covert action planning and preparatory effort as well as the authority they now have to limit relevant intelligence collection; the identity of CIA officers must be protected by legal safeguards. (C)

Unless the above steps are taken not only will the remaining slender covert action capabilities of the USG continue to atrophy; covert action undertaken in response to urgently felt emergency needs will in all likelihood be ineffective and in some instances may prove to be politically embarrassing. (U)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, 1977–1981, Box 103, SCC151 Intelligence Charters 3/27/79. Confidential; Sensitive; Outside the system. Sent for action.
  2. Latin for “Gently in manner; gently in deed.” French for “Not too much zeal!”
  3. The Hughes-Ryan Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 (P.L. 93–559) amended the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. It requires that a Presidential “finding” be submitted to the appropriate congressional committee in order to secure the appropriation of funds for covert actions. It also included provisions that required the President to report all covert actions to specified congressional committees within a specific period of time.