Covert Action

Covert action, in the U.S. intelligence lexicon, refers to the attempt by one government to pursue its foreign policy objectives by conducting some secret activity to influence the behavior of a foreign government or political, military, economic, or societal circumstances in a foreign country. As the term implies, the defining characteristic of covert action is that the government conducting the activity conduct it in a secret or covert manner. However, what secrecy means precisely can vary according to the particular circumstances.

It should be noted that the term covert action is an American invention, not used in the lexicons of all other intelligence services. For example, the nearest equivalent Soviet term of art, “Active measures” (aktivnye meropriiatiia), was broader than covert action – it referred to both overt and covert techniques of influencing events and behavior in, and the actions of, foreign countries. As such, it did not fall entirely within the sphere of intelligence. Similarly, MI6 commonly referred to such action as Special Operations (SO), associated with the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), and they were for a long time rather self-contradictory about when and where covert action could be appropriately employed.


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