Talking ‘Covert’: Politics-As-Usual? What is the Cost?

In the November 12, 2011 GOP foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney and others pronounced the word ‘covert’, in the context of endorsing US covert operations in Iran and Syria, several times. Is talking overtly about the ‘covert’ a new trend or an idiosyncratic exception to the norm? How important are the expressions of such views and what repercussions may they have, domestically and internationally? Having the recent results of the two primaries (Iowa and New Hampshire),  where Romney gained leading positions, I look back at this foreign policy debate and the particular issue of the ‘covert’-talk.

It is a gross overstatement to suggest, as some have done, that most of the foreign policy opinions by the Republican GOP candidates did not constitute “foreign policy ideas or positions” but only “desperate cries for attention”,  and thus will “have precious little influence over America’s international course”. These so called ‘blurbs’ do count as much as they have been formulated and disseminated within the existing American foreign policy discursive reality circulating via both official and non-official channels and were meant both to rely on the existing intersubjective reality for their acceptance by the public, as well as to influence (and perhaps change) the very epistemic community it was addressed to. Moreover, given how Mitt Romney, the top candidate, has embraces the Neocons long known to have been in pursuit of warmongering, and how the latter are consistently and intensively pushing for a return of their political influence, the foreign policy views of this candidate, and of the others in relation to him, must mean more than just meets the ear.

Romney’s first reaction to his success in Iowa was to repeat what he had long done—accuse Obama of having failed to deal with the ‘challenge’ of Iran promptly. Despite his gross errors on a number of accounts regarding the accusation, this line has become his trumpet. Thus, he has previously, quite smugly, declared that “if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney….they will not have a nuclear weapon.”

The question is HOW? How is he, the future potential president, going to achieve this supposed foreign policy goal of ridding Iran of its purported nuclear programme?

Since diplomacy, consideration of own international behaviour that might be causing  anxiety and encouraging the potential development of nuclear weapons, seem to be out of the agenda, there remain two main possible routes: regime change via a direct military operation (in violation of international law, and possibly of US constitution if Congressional approval is not sought), or regime change via covert operations meddling with the inner political dynamics of Iran (in violation of international law, although not entirely of US federal law, and in detriment of transparency and accountability).

Back in the November foreign policy debate, Romney waved the flag of the ‘covert’ several times:

“[Obama] recognized the gravest threat that America and the world faces– a nuclear Iran and he did not do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly. What he should have done is …work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents…. It’s worth working with the insurgents in the company to encourage regime change in the country.”

This statement is notable not only because Romney, and others (to be shown later) are in total disregard, or cynicism, of international norms of non-endorsement of regime change in foreign countries. What is most striking is how the explicit talk of ‘covert’ operations repeats and expands through the debate. Overall, the term ‘covert’, in the context of US-led covert operations, mostly in Iran, but also in Syria, was pronounced 9 times by the candidates in that debate, of which  three times by Romney (once in relation to Iran, and twice to Syria), three times by Gingrich (twice re. Iran, and once re. Syria), twice by Santorum (re. Iran), and once my Paul (re. Syria, and the only case expressing disapproval). The talk of the ‘covert’, although understandably less intensively, has also been present in other earlier GOP debates employed variously (e.g. on August 12, 2011; November 22, 2011, and December 15, 2011). The frequency and ease with which it has been presented at the foreign policy debate may create the impression among the public that it is politics-as-usual, just a daily business, and is legally and morally legitimate and even desirable.

Santorum, as well as Gingrich were less shy than Romney in describing, quite graphically, what exactly such covert operations might involve (both excerpts from the November 12th debate):

“Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. And we will go about whatever it takes …[including] covert activity. You know, there have been scientists turning up dead in Russia and in– in Iran. There have been computer viruses. There have been problems at their facility. I hope that the United States has been involved with that. I hope that we have been doing everything we can covertly to make sure that that program doesn’t– proceed forward.” — (Santorum).

“First of all, as maximum covert operations, to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum coordination with the Israelis, in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran. Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher did in the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down.” – (Gingrich)  

Santorum, on another occasion,  went even at greater length to construct the evil Other:

“We need to be very clear: Any foreign scientists working in Iran on this nuclear program will be termed an enemy combatant and will be subject — like any other enemy combatant, like Osama bin Laden — to being taken out by the United States government as a threat to this country.”

The last statement also may be seen as language manipulation par excellence when one thinks of how a scientist may become a ‘combatant’…

The US, has consistently been engaged in covert operations in the post-WWII period both within the context of the Cold War and beyond,  mostly coordinated and carried out by the CIA. These have been attempts, whether successful or not, of contributing to regime changes, at times accompanied with assassination attempts of leaders, including Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, Lumumba of the Republic of the Congo in 1961, Trujillio of the Dominican Republic in 1961, Diem of South Vietnam in 1963, Castro of Cuba in 1961, Abd al-Karim Qasim of Iraq in 1963, and General Shneider of Chile in 1971, in addition to later covert operations such as the notorious Iran Contra in the 1980s, among others.  These are the known cases, those which have been hardest to deny; which leaves the real number of all covert operations, especially in the post-Cold War environment, virtually unknown.  In fact, some have argued that covert operations have been consistently approved by US presidents and been a major part of the country’s history (just as, to be fair, they have been part of the Soviet Union history, and have just as well been possibly exercised by other states in the past and at present).

Given such a track record, it would be old news to lament over the possibility of such methods as part of the US foreign policy implementation toolbox in the present or near future. Rather, what is sticking is the normality with which it is pronounced by the most candidates at the said debate, and the fact that the discussion over how a foreign policy goal must be achieved (in this case whether to bomb or conduct a covert operation) overshadows and takes over a debate about whether the foreign policy goal (to achieve a regime change in Iran, in order to, according to the logic, prevent them having a nuclear programme) itself is justified in the first place. Such kind of ‘upgrading’ of covert operations as legitimate tools of foreign policy may undermine debate about peaceful political-diplomatic solutions to international conflicts and tensions by gradually cultivating the public perception that the latter are less effective, while the former are able to provide ‘quick-fix’ solutions to foreign policy problems.

Most of the above-mentioned covert operations have become known due to the work of the Church Committee established in early 1970s, to review the work of the CIA and FBI, following a number of worrying revelations of abuse. Owing to their reports and pressure, U.S. sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders became ultimately illegal.  But ‘non-lethal’ covert operations by the CIA are not, giving grounds for some quite probabilistic more recent claims such as President Bush allegedly authorising a CIA plan in 2007 to coordinate a “campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international financial transactions” and clandestine support of the opposition, with the aim of bringing down the regime. Despite ‘reliable sources’ cited by such reports, these claims are dutifully refuted by the officials, under the pressure of the accepted international norm of non-endorsement of such activities.

Open admittance of planning for covert operations has been rare also in public appearances by presidential hopefuls. In fact, I could find not a single mentioning among the 21 Republican debates between 2007 and 2008, with the exception of some vague allusions and euphemisms to alternative non-military pressures on Iran by Mitt Romney in this 2007 debate. 

It is still hard to say, whether this openness about the ‘covert’ is a trend, or an exception. But, in the environment of recent developments with regards to Iran, including the assassination of yet another nuclear scientist, such cynicism towards international norms and such endorsement of gangster-like methods of foreign policy is certain to achieve one thing—increase mistrust, allow for more legitimation grounds manipulated by the rulers for the very development of nuclear weapons, and in general, more grounds for rallying support to repress democratic movements. The latter may easily be done by first labeling those movements as ‘the work of Americans meddling with our affairs’ rather than genuine, and then securitizing those alleged covert interventions as a conspiracy against the national sovereignty and identity.

Indeed, in the past, some countries have attempted to silence home discontent and demands for democratic reform by outright denying the genuinely of the latter and announcing them as foreign/Western (mostly understood as ‘U.S.’) conspiracy—a covert operation meant to destabilise ‘our motherland and install their own puppet government’. This has been at the basis of Iranian crackdown on active blogging communities in 2010, for the alleged crime of “cooperation with hostile countries and spreading propaganda against the ruling establishment” and a most recent major crackdown on bloggers and writers (after the first posting of this article was published). Most tellingly, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi has justified the crackdown as follow: the arrested bloggers and writers had “envisaged carrying out American plans to disrupt the parliamentary elections by using cyberspace and social networks.”

Such narratives of blaming the West have also been used, for example, in Russia with regards to recent protests, which also tends to be repeated by former Soviet republics in Russia’s sphere of influence. It is easy to see how the narrative is attempting to discredit dissidence by silencing these voices through a threat-building discourse of Otherness.  This alone could increase support for current rulers; but coupled with the ability to find factual basis pointing to actual covert intervention attempts could potentially be a basis for real suppression of a democratic movement.  If the American benevolent mission in the world is said to be the spread of democracy, then this indeed is a very ineffective and morally dubious path.

This article was updated (with an addition in the paragraph before last), on 24th January, 2012.


  • Lucas Freire says:

    Great stuff, Tatevik! I hope these warmongers, including Obama, keep getting exposed as the actual or potential war criminals that they are. The military-industrial complex is fed by this bipartisan monster of Leviathan. And the bodies keep pilling up.

  • Thanks, Lucas! War-mongerism and hawkishness are one big danger, but it gets really dangerous when they are not even identified as such. I am still struck by the air of normality and cynicism with which the debate presented covert operations, just as I have always been struck by the ease of discussions of bombing foreign counties in American politics, often in the spirit of not ‘if or whether to’, but simply ‘when and how to’, and ‘who to’.

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