The intelligence world has its grievances everywhere in the world. This is particularly true in the Western democracies precisely because… they are democracies. In theory, democracies are the land of human rights, transparency, and ultimately openness. After all, any other form of government is not so engaged with those values. However, the reality is always more complex, and history teaches us that even the most established and oldest democracies in the world, comparatively speaking, have their covert activities. But is this only history? Are covert actions simply dead, a “relic of the Cold War”? This is exactly the right introductory question for this insightful interview. After twenty interviews now, in which we covered less controversial topics (but are there any in the intelligence studies?), I thought to tackle one of the most fascinating, complicated, and complex topics of intelligence studies. It wasn’t possible to find a better person than Magda Long, Ph.D. candidate at King’s College – London, whose passion for intelligence and research is so completely transparent. Her in-depth knowledge and passion will be apparent to all our readers once they go through the interview. And I’m always glad to bring different opinions on my research topics and ideas. Indeed, I argued elsewhere that covert actions are not part of intelligence in theory; but they are for historical reasons. And it is cool to put it after the interview on intelligence ethics! Ok, I hope I persuaded you that if you are interested in covert actions, especially in the current geopolitical competition, this is definitely the interview you were searching for. Then, it is with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Magda: thank you!
1. Let’s start with the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the national and international readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
I find this question most difficult to answer! Simply because, if I say I am a PhD candidate researching the limits and utility of U.S. covert action in the post-Cold War world, I would not be truly describing who I am as an individual. Yes, I work on covert action, but that, nor any of my other professional and academic experiences, explain or define who I am.
I guess the best way to introduce myself to your readers is to say that I am someone who is very passionate about learning and expanding my knowledge and experience. In the professional sense, that passion is directed at topics related to intelligence, international security, foreign policy, and diplomacy. It is also directed at teaching and applying this knowledge and experience to help shape how governments approach foreign policy and national security challenges.
2. Preparing this interview, I discovered your previous work experience, and I was struck by it. So, first, how has your previous working experience shaped your research? How did you decide to explore the very complex topic of covert actions today?
Ah, yes, my work experience. The one constant in my life for the past “many” years has been intelligence! I did not seek it, I did not even know what it was, but from the age of 16, intelligence has – in one way or another – been a part of my life and not in an academic sense, but rather as a practitioner and analyst. I first learned about intelligence from the British military forces during the war in Bosnia and was simply fascinated by it. I was then mentored for a few years by someone who worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). After that experience, I moved to the U.S. where I worked on business intelligence and risk management. I, kind of, fell into that role as well. A major consulting firm was starting a business intelligence practice in Chicago, and my RCMP mentor introduced me to the head of the department who was keen for me to join their practice and help grow it. Although that experience was fascinating, and I learned a lot, I really wanted to get back into foreign policy and national security issues.
So, when my family decided to move to London, I made a decision to go back to school and get an MA in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London (KCL). That was probably the start of the journey I am on right now. I could not love it more. It was everything I wanted to do. After I completed my MA, I was hired by a public policy research institute where I worked on defense and security issues, and that was a fascinating experience. I was involved in projects that helped me see what impact our research had on policymaking. Shortly thereafter, my family circumstances changed, so I thought I would switch gears again and do a PhD. I wanted to do something other than intelligence. I thought I needed a break from intelligence – but it just was not happening. I could not find supervisors for my proposed research topic, and when I did, they were at academic institutions in locations that were not ideal for my family. So, a dear friend at KCL, having listened to me complain about it for the hundredth time, said to me that, clearly, I could not run away from intelligence and that I should embrace it and think of an intelligence-related topic for my PhD. I wanted to do something that was contemporary. Something that would have an impact on policymaking and be relevant to the age we live in today. We started talking about covert paramilitary operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and remembered a paper I wrote on covert action as an MA student. It was about whether covert action during the Cold War was universally counter-productive. We started talking about covert action and how can one know whether covert action was effective or not – and the idea was born there and then, as we were enjoying a pint of beer!
3. I was particularly fascinated by your experience in Bosnia. Though I was very young at that time, many of us were impressed by it. Considering how close Italy is to the Balkans (and how Italy was involved diplomatically at least in the war), that war shaped our generation. How crucial was this experience to your research?
I had just started high school when the war in Bosnia broke out. As with all wars, many horrible things happened in Bosnia as well. I was fortunate enough to be able to speak English, so when the international forces came under the UN and, subsequently, NATO banners, I was hired as an interpreter for the British military contingent. As a result, I was privy to sensitive negotiations and discussions at various levels. From negotiations about the freedom of movement, to troop withdrawals, confrontation lines, mine removal, war crimes. The whole gamut. Several years later, I joined an international organization that was created to help implement the Dayton Peace Accord to work on countering fraud, corruption, bribery, money laundering, and related issues.
This experience was absolutely crucial in shaping who I am today and my research interests. It helped (and still does) guide my research. A lot of people write about wars and how they affect societies. I lived through one. I learned how societies in conflict, and in post-conflict situations, operate. I learned about strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare. I learned how the international community engages with societies in conflict. I learned about national interests from both perspectives – host country and intervening countries – and the dichotomy between the two. I learned how pivotal intelligence is and about civil-military relations. Perhaps most importantly, I met some amazing people who took the time to teach me all of these things and helped me grow as an individual who was not just a displaced person, a refugee, but an active participant with an important voice, and someone who can help shape the narrative. A lot of these people are still in my life today, and their advice and support have been invaluable in guiding my research.
4. Let’s talk now about your main topic of research, covert actions. How would you define covert actions for a general reader? What should they know about them to grasp their essence?
Just like with the definition of intelligence, the definition of covert action is also complex. Different countries define it differently, depending, in many respects, on how the country is organized politically and legally, or the goals sought.
For instance, in the UK, covert action was known by several different names, including deniable action, special political action, and disruptive action, reflecting a broad spectrum of covert activities that were being conducted. For instance, the term “special political action” reflected overthrowing of governments and sometimes assassinating leaders. In Russia, the term for covert action is “active measures.” The difference is that that term is probably more synonymous with influence activities, but the methods used can be both kinetic and non-kinetic. Active measures include influencing events, and the behavior and actions of foreign governments both overtly and covertly. It can describe an assassination, or a propaganda effort. The focus is on the goal sought, rather than whether it is done overtly or covertly.
In the U.S., however, covert action is about concealing the sponsorship. The legal definition for covert action is codified in U.S. Code, Title 50, as an activity or activities of the U.S. government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the U.S. government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.
Bearing in mind how technology has evolved, which also had an impact on covert action methods, in my thesis, I explain that covert action, in the most simplistic terms, is about secretly influencing events, people, and entities in other countries by utilizing both kinetic and non-kinetic methods, virtually and in the real world, while concealing the sponsorship.
5. So, I would like to raise the bar now! In a recent lecture and one of my papers, I argued that covert actions are not part of the core intelligence functions. In most realist definitions of intelligence, we find that covert actions are rarely included as a main function of intelligence. What is the role of covert actions in intelligence, broadly understood? Should an intelligence conception and understanding include them or not?
You went straight for the jugular here! Just kidding. I am, of course, aware of the debate. I once told one British, very senior and prominent intelligence studies academic that I was researching covert action and he just looked at me, said “oooh,” and our conversation was over. He walked away. Good thing I have a lot of confidence!
Because I research U.S. covert action, I’ll limit my responses to the U.S. practice. Naturally, I am a proponent of understanding covert action as a function of intelligence. I do, however, think that, originally, the decision to house covert action within the CIA was more a matter of happenstance, departmental wrangling, and perhaps – to an extent – convenience, rather than a well-thought-out plan.
Although the Department of State (State) wanted to make decisions and know everything about covert action activities, there were policy and capability reasons why they did not want, nor could they, be executing the operations themselves. Covert action activities in the late 1940s included election interference, black propaganda, commando-type raids, sabotage, and support of guerilla warfare. The Pentagon did not want to have anything to do with covert action because this was peacetime. Yet, although State and the Pentagon were unenthusiastic about taking on covert action operational responsibilities themselves, they also believed that covert action was too important of a policy tool to be given to the CIA alone. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal from the very beginning was to tie covert action as a policy implementing tool to broader foreign policy and national security objectives, but also to keep it under the Executive Office control as a presidential instrument, as opposed to within the purview of individual departments – State, the Pentagon, or even the CIA. It is not difficult to see how this early departmental squabbling about where covert action capabilities should be situated and by whom they should be controlled also represented the uncertainty of post-World War II political dynamics and policy objectives, as well as the novelty of a peacetime national intelligence system.
Covert action arises out the intelligence process, is undertaken by intelligence personnel, and paid by intelligence budgets. Although covert action is an active policy implementing tool, rather than a passive intelligence function, covert action is linked with other intelligence activities the CIA conducts – collection, analysis, dissemination, liaison, and counterintelligence. Also, covert action can only be conducted abroad, and the CIA is prohibited from working domestically. When it comes to infrastructure support, an important element in conducting covert action, the CIA maintains a worldwide, clandestine infrastructure – things like safe houses, logistics capabilities, financial means, communication capabilities, etc. Perhaps most crucially, covert action and HUMINT (human intelligence) are intrinsically linked and cannot be divorced, and HUMINT is, after all, CIA’s bread and butter.
So, I believe that any definition of intelligence also needs to include this active side of intelligence.
6. The world changed dramatically after the Cold War. It is often said that the intelligence world opened up to public debate and civil societies. How did the end of the Cold War change covert action? Did the era of covert action end?
After the Cold War, but before the 9/11 – covert action in the U.S. took a back seat in many respects, particularly when compared to covert action activities prior to the 1970s. To give your readers some perspective, at the height of the Cold War, between 1961 and 1976, the CIA conducted over 900 covert actions. However, after 1976, after various congressional investigations into intelligence activities, and the establishment of congressional intelligence oversight committees, presidents became much more cautious about using covert action to pursue policy objectives. That, of course, is not to suggest that presidents just stopped using covert action. For instance, the U.S. was involved in at least 17 covert actions between 1976 and 1989 that were related to regime-changes, and at least nine propaganda, paramilitary and/or political covert actions. The end of the Cold War, however, further affected how and when presidents used covert action.
The end of the Cold War created existential challenges for an organization which was created to help defeat the Soviet Union. In the absence of the ‘main enemy,’ the CIA was tasked with taking on an active role in combating organized crime, narcotics, weapons proliferation, technology transfers, advancing American economic interests, and supporting military contingencies. For instance, in 1992, according to then Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), Robert Gates, approximately 40% of intelligence requirements approved by the president were related to economic issues, despite the apparent reluctance by the CIA to get involved in this type of work. President George H. W. Bush also called for leveraging all available means, consistent with applicable law, to suppress the production and movement of cocaine into the U.S. from South America, and more specifically Bolivia, Columbia, and Peru. This included the traditional overt means – diplomatic pressure, economic enticement, military training for host government personnel, and operational support of their activities. However, it also included covert action to support this objective.
The Clinton administration’s main focus was on the economy. It was all about the peace dividends. The European allies were also gravely concerned with the changes in the U.S policy. The European Parliament reported with concern that that U.S. intelligence collection activities were broader than the U.S. government represented, and that the CIA was directly involved in gathering intelligence on competitors for the benefit of American business. However, the CIA had also experienced reputational damage. Some policymakers even argued the CIA had not only become obsolete, but was incompetent, deceitful, and excessively secretive and, as such, should be abolished. Actually, one of the senators even introduced a bill in 1995 to abolish the CIA and transfer its responsibilities to State, but the bill got nowhere. The CIA’s management in the Directorate of Operations that housed covert action capabilities had become so risk-averse prompting Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, to say the CIA had a battered child syndrome. According to former DCI George Tenet, in the mid-1990s, CIA mid- and senior-level officers were very worried they would be asked to go defend their actions before the Congress or in courts. Official covert actions were few and far between, comparatively, and generally, not much has been written about covert action activities in the 1990s.
However, starting in 1995, we also saw a development of a new covert action program related to renditions (the practice of detaining a terrorist in a foreign country and transferring him/her to the U.S., or to another foreign country) that continued into the 2000s. Renditions were also used in the Balkans to capture suspected war criminals and deliver them to the Hague for trails. Additionally, in contrast to the Cold War when such things were done covertly mostly, there was also an overt train and equip U.S.-led military training provided to the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats in Bosnia. In this instance, the training was provided by a private military contractor firm, MPRI, whose employees were former U.S. military personnel, starting a trend of reliance (at times excessive) on private military contractors for intelligence- and defense and security-related issues that continues today.
7. How did the 9/11 attacks impact the U.S. government approach to covert action? What has changed from the covert action perspective?
Paramilitary covert action ‘hijacked,’ so-to-speak, CIA capabilities and operations in the aftermath of 9/11 as the CIA took on a leading role in counterterrorism (CT) efforts. John Rizzo, a long-time CIA lawyer, was reported to have said that the collective number of Cold War covert actions ‘pales in comparison’ to the number of covert actions conducted in support of CT after 9/11. In addition to covert paramilitary operations, including the proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strikes, post-9/11 covert action activities broadly saw an increase in technology driven operations including Information Warfare (IW) (e.g. hostile social media manipulations, utilizing deepfake videos – superficially imposing one person’s face onto another person’s face in videos – or creating fake identities on social media) to spread disinformation, and computer hacking and planting malware as part of Computer Network Operations (CNOs). The U.S. was at a receiving end of some of these activities, but there is also evidence that suggests the U.S. Intelligence Community, including the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), had also engaged at least in some of these activities both offensively and defensively. The most commonly cited example of an offensive CNO is the Stuxnet malware attack on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility (AKA Operation Olympic Games). In 2010, after Stuxnet ‘escaped’ into the digital wild and ‘cyber-attacked’ corporations around the world, including in the U.S., it came to light (although it has still not been officially acknowledged) that President Bush, and subsequently President Obama, reportedly approved a presidential finding (a written document by which the president officially authorizes covert action) authorizing the deployment of Stuxnet.
However, there are legislative, oversight, and accountability challenges related to post-9/11 covert action. This is mostly noticeable in relation to paramilitary operations, including UAV strikes, and IW, including CNOs. Without going into too many details, the paramilitary operations challenges are related to the statutory requirements under which such operations are conducted. For instance, although not a new phenomenon as the CIA and Special Operation Forces (SOF) have collaborated previously, the line between special operations conducted by SOF and paramilitary covert actions conducted by the CIA had become almost indiscernible after 9/11. Critics argued that the Pentagon used SOF to circumvent, theoretically, the statutory requirements of Title 50 of the U.S. Code, which states that covert action must be approved by a presidential finding and that congressional intelligence oversight committees must be notified. The Pentagon does not quite see it that way and have argued that SOF special operations are a part of traditional military activities and, as such, fall under Title 10 of the U.S. Code governing armed forces, and, therefore, no presidential finding is required for such operations.
Similarly, this debate also touches on UAV strikes. The development of UAV technology has enabled the American government to not only pursue, but also to strike terrorists in and outside of active combat zones. Generally, when UAV strikes are conducted outside of active combat zones, the CIA is more likely to be involved. However, as a result of the broad powers of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) – activated in response to the 9/11 attacks – and the subsequent 2002 AUMF against Iraq, this distinction about combat zones, approvals for UAV strikes, and who conducts them has become somewhat blurred. For instance, the January 2020 UAV strike in Iraq, conducted under the auspices of the 2002 AUMF, which killed Iran’s head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the deputy head of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, resembled a political assassination officially banned by President Ford in 1976. It was a blatant abuse of the 2002 AUMF. The Trump administration first justified the targeting as an “imminent threat,” but then backtracked and used the 2002 AUMF as justification for the strike. The event prompted Congress to ban the Trump administration from attacking Iran without congressional authorization, except in instances of self-defense against an imminent threat.
Relatedly, both the CIA and the U.S. Cyber Command, a part of the Pentagon, can conduct offensive CNOs outside of active combat zones. In 2018, Cyber Command was given the directive to ‘defend forward’ in peacetime as well and specific authority to engage in CNOs against China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia should there be evidence these states have tried interfering in the U.S. This can complicate things as it is somewhat unclear where one draws the line between their respective operations, and that is an issue that can impact the strategy as well as accountability and oversight for such operations. Cyberspace security is not just an intelligence program, or a military operation. It involves many layers of the society because it can impact everyone and anyone.
However, it is also important to note for your readers that the president, who gives the final approval for covert action, does have the ability to use an agency other than the CIA if the president determines that another agency is more likely to achieve a particular objective. So, although the CIA is the vehicle presidents generally chose to rely on for covert action during a peacetime, as a result of CT-driven foreign policy and national security needs, but also as a result of technological advancements, certain components within the U.S. military, such as the SOF, as well as the NSA and its sister organization, the Cyber Command, operating under Title 10, have taken a more integral role in covert action both in and outside of active combat zones.
8. I know it is impossible, but how would you describe the current approach to covert action?
Ah, this is a tricky question. Covert action has always been a little bit of a taboo topic – as one scholar described it, praised in victory and scourged in defeat. However, I think covert action has been misunderstood in many respects because the role of covert action has been misjudged. So, perhaps, there needs to be more clarity about what covert action is and is not, and what it can and cannot accomplish. However, these covert action limits and utility need to be considered within the context of the period of time we live in, and within relevant political and national security contexts. That, in a nutshell, is what my thesis is about.
Naturally, as the world changed, national interests and policy objectives also changed. American foreign policy and national security objectives adjusted to reflect the new challenges. However, America’s national security architecture that supports and decides about these polices, remains unchanged. I believe the current challenges with covert action, which I mentioned above, are mostly the result of this national security architecture inability to evolve as quickly. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA was asked to perform certain jobs in support of CT objectives, some of which were outside of CIA’s expertise. Furthermore, that overfocus on operational issues led to the development of a strategic intelligence gap. Another example is the fact that the U.S. government is still grappling with developing a clear cyberspace strategy, laws, regulations, and diplomatic efforts related to cyberspace. There is also the issue with the broad use of the two AUMFs which obviate the need for further congressional approvals of operations resembling covert action, if not covert action, and, under certain circumstances, give the U.S. a way to circumvent the non-intervention principle (refraining from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state), outlined in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. And, of course, there is also the renewed great power rivalry with China and Russia who are more sophisticated than terrorist organizations the U.S. has been fighting for the past 20 years and require a different approach.
Ultimately, there has to be a level of oversight of and accountability for covert action. Whether the current national security architecture in place is sufficient and whether turf battles about legal interpretations of the U.S. Code, and between congressional oversight committees for intelligence and for armed forces, can be resolved without changes to the national security architecture, remains to be seen.
9. Do you believe covert actions are a governments’ useful tool? What are the limits under which they are effective? The big question that any reader would ask is whether they are moral or, at least, acceptable in the democratic value frame, or are they “relics of the Cold War” as M once defined James Bond?
Ah, this is a very big question and also something that I am still researching. Let me split the big question into four smaller ones. Is covert action a government’s useful tool? The short answer is, yes. The pendulum of covert action support and criticism had swung so many times that it is remarkable that American presidents remained willing to resort to covert action at all. While this reliance on covert action as a policy tool, and as a magic bullet and quick fix, waxed and waned with successive administrations, all post-World War II American presidents have resorted to covert action during their respective terms regardless of how they felt about it. The catch is that covert action is not a substitute for poor foreign policy but needs to be integrated into a broader foreign policy and national security approach. Afterall, covert action is a national security and a foreign policy tool. Just like diplomacy is a policy tool. It is the middle ground – between diplomacy and military action – and can be used offensively and defensively. However, we also need to recognize that we cannot rely on our Cold War knowledge and experience to respond to different challenges to peace that became prevalent in the post-Cold War world. Adaptability is key.
9.1 How can covert actions be effective?
Oh, my, this is a massive questions and scholars have written books just on this subject! How do you interpret effective? What does it mean to be effective? Success and failure are often arbitrarily defined.
Those who have examined covert action successes and/or failures sometimes neglected the fact that covert action is a part of a broader system in which pursuing policy objectives is a multidisciplinary process. Nevertheless, scholars have identified fundamental principles under which covert action can be effective. A great majority of them are common sense, or were referenced in one iteration or another in various literature – e.g. when possible, use diplomatic and overt efforts; covert action should be in line with overt policy objectives; apply just war rule of proportionality; make sure covert action is integrated with other elements of intelligence; reject intelligence activities with countries known for practicing, or allowing the practice of, human rights violations, remember fair play, etc. Other scholars also highlighted that maintaining infrastructure – people and tools – is key for effectiveness as well as having sustained leadership – creativity and imagination to coordinate overt and covert action programs, ability to translate policy into practice, and close inter- and intra-departmental collaboration. Common sense, one may argue. However, in essence, many events which took place in Afghanistan in the immediacy of 9/11 demonstrated that these particular guiding principles were overlooked.
What is important to remember, however, is that covert action is a policy implementing tool. It is NOT an independent factor that exist in a vacuum or without context or link to other policy tools and policy objectives. The CIA does not arbitrarily decide to use covert action. Requests for covert action generally originate in the National Security Council, or State, although the final approval for covert action is given by the president through a presidential finding. So, covert action is an executive branch function, and as such, at a strategic level, the accountability for the policies, and for the real or perceived covert action successes and failures, also rests with the Executive Office, and more specifically, the president.
9.2 Are covert actions moral, or at least acceptable, in terms of democratic value frame?
Another tough question! If we go back to the previous question about the effectiveness of covert action, one of the proposed fundamental principles for assessing the utility of impending covert action is to rely on just-war theory. The argument is that applying the principles of just-war theory would encourage the support of the American people and make sure that covert action is consistent with law, American values, and public mores, as former DCI William Webster said. Some scholars argue that it is reasonable to assume that the American people would approve of covert action methods that minimize injury (physical, economic, or psychological) to innocent people, are proportionate to the threat, and under firm U.S. control. I believe these efforts are admirable. However, the just-war theory is, just like the application of just-war theory in international affairs – complex. Moral reasoning is, in most instances, a matter of perception. In instances where covert action includes working with indigenous forces, for example, whose objectives, goals and morality may differ significantly from the American ones, where does one place boundaries on what just-cause and self-defense mean? As William Colby, former DCI, said “the self-defense test is reasonably simple, although the judgment as to whether it is met is frequently a matter of deep disagreement.”
9.3 Are covert actions a relic of the Cold War?
I think, by now, your readers will probably have guessed my answer to this question. Absolutely not. Covert action continues to occupy a prominent place in the vast arsenal of means governments have at their disposal to pursue policy objectives. But, as I said before, adaptability is key.
10. How can our readers follow you?
I am not very active on social media networks, but I do have a Twitter profile @magda_long, and a LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/magda-long-97b9604/
Five keywords that represent you?
1) Determined; 2) Tenacious (some may call it stubborn); 3) Passionate; 4) Reliable; and 5) Conscientious.