Covert Action and Accountability: Decision-Making for America's Secret Foreign Policy

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JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact This study examines the way in which the United States decides upon and oversees the use of covert action-the pursuit of American foreign policy objectives through secret intervention into the affairs of other nations. First, the definitional nuaiices of covert action are explored, illustrating the ambi-guities inherent in the term. Second, the magnitude of funding for covert action is estimated for the years 1947-86, revealing fluctuations in the attractiveness to policymakers of this "quiet option" as an instrument of foreign affairs. Third, the global targeting priorities for covert action are presented, again disclosing fluctuations but within a broad pattern of pri-mary attention to small, developing nations. With this background, the study then turns to its main focus: the procedures by which the government approves of and reviews covert action. During the Ford and Carter Admin-istrations, this decision process evolved into a complex matrix of check-points and overseers, including unprecedented legislative involvement. The Reagan years produced dramatic evidence, however, that these efforts at closer supervision of America's secret foreign policy-the "democratiza-tion" of covert action-had fallen short of the goals espoused by reformers. The Iran-contra scandal of 1986-87 cast doubt on the effectiveness of the new oversight procedures and stirred further debate on whether the United States could maintain both a robust secret service and reliable safe-guards against the abuse of hidden power.

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  • Loch K. Johnson

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