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By Elizabeth Finan Senior Staff Writer October 25, 2010

Counterpoint is a new section of the International Affairs Review, which provides a platform for open and fair debate on a variety of international affairs topic. See the other side of this debate at In Defense of Covert Action by Corey Velgersdyk.

For over 60 years, covert action has been a powerful foreign policy tool for U.S. Presidents. Even President Jimmy Carter, who initially had deep suspicions of the CIA, was later persuaded of the utility of covert actions. But despite the apparent appeal of a “third option” between diplomacy and military intervention, covert action is in many cases immoral and incompatible with the principles of a democratic society.

General James Doolittle’s 1954 report, which supported the use of covert action, acknowledged the pitfalls from such activities. Referring to the United States’ struggle with the Soviet Union, he wrote, “Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long standing concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered.”

By abandoning “acceptable norms” and “fair play” in the name of national interest, the United States also ceded some of the moral high ground. At the same time it criticized the Soviet Union for lack of respect of other nations’ sovereignty, the United States was itself interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.

For example, in Chile during the 1960s and early 1970s the CIA undertook a massive covert action program to in an attempt to prevent Socialist candidate Salvador Allende from winning the 1970 presidential election. Despite both Chile’s democratic traditions and intelligence assessments that downplayed Allende’s communist affiliations, the United States still funded opposition parties and, according to many, engineered a coup that forced Allende out of power.

This type of direct involvement in a foreign country’s political process is inconsistent with the international law principle of non-interference. Because the U.S. does so secretly to avoid association or responsibility, the involvement becomes even more suspect. Without knowing that the United States is the sponsor of select political leaders and their policies, citizens are unable to make an informed judgment about their public officials. It is doubtful such a policy accords with the standards of democracy and justice.

Of course, some covert action programs are more benign than others. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty began as covert action programs, and many say that those institutions were instrumental in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union.

A difference exists, however, between the promotion of democratic values through radio broadcasts and the direct intervention in a nation’s political process. The former provided a service, giving Eastern Europeans another side of the story that they could ignore if they wished. The latter has an effect on everyone. Whether people like it or not, they must live under the policies of an artificially created system.

These innocent bystanders are harmed as a result of U.S. covert action. Therefore, covert action would be immoral under the classical formulation of just war theory. St. Thomas Aquinas, an authority on just war theory, writes in his Summa Theologica, “Those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.”

But covert action programs often result in exactly the kind of collateral damage that a just war necessarily avoids. Because the goal is to influence foreign governments, innocent people can become targets. This is especially true when the United States attempts to create economic unrest in the hope of destabilizing a government. During the 1960s, for instance, the CIA was authorized to sabotage an oil refinery and a sugar mill. Although such activity may advance U.S. interests, it creates collateral damage by harming the general population who rely on those industries not just for their goods and services, but also for their jobs.

In the case of Chile, the collateral damage from U.S. involvement there was significant. Not only did the covert action encroach on Chilean political independence, but it also led to a military coup and the subsequent brutal police oppression of the Pinochet regime. Similar fallout resulted from U.S. covert programs in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). In each of these instances, the individual or group supported by the U.S. went on to become repressive leaders, resulting in enormous loss of life and freedom. The Shah of Iran was corrupt and oppressive, and the new Guatemalan rulers launched a brutal counter-insurgency campaign soon after taking power. In terms of protecting innocent citizens from the collateral damage of covert action, the U.S. track record is not exactly stellar.

In the short term, covert action programs seem like a good idea. They can accomplish a foreign policy goal when diplomacy fails and military force is not appropriate. However, the long-term effects are often less than desirable. By espousing transparency and democracy while simultaneously undertaking secretive operations to undermine sovereign nations, the United States acts counter to its own standards and principles. Some might say that the end justifies the means, but that does not make the means morally acceptable.

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