Oversight of United States covert operations

Executive oversight of United States covert operations has been carried out by a series of sub-committees of the National Security Council (NSC).

Birth of covert operations in the Cold WarEdit

At the beginning of the Cold War, it was not inevitable that covert operations would become the dominion of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).[1] The National Security Act of 1947 did not explicitly authorize the CIA to conduct covert operations, although Section 102(d)(5) was sufficiently vague to permit abuse.[2][3] At the very first meetings of the NSC in late 1947, the perceived necessity to "stem the flow of communism" in Western Europe—particularly Italy—by overt and covert "psychological warfare" forced the issue.[1] The actual responsibility for these operations was a hot potato, and when it was decided that the State Department would be in charge, Secretary of State George Marshall sharply opposed it, fearing it would tarnish the international credibility of his department. The upshot was that responsibility for covert operations was passed on to the CIA; this was codified in a NSC policy paper called NSC 4-A,[4] approved in December 1947.[1] NSC 4-A provided the authorization for the intervention of the CIA in the Italian elections of April 1948.[5]

Proposed NSC 4-A PanelEdit

A draft[6] of NSC 4-A envisioned the creation of a NSC-designated "panel" to approve operations. The executive secretary of the NSC, Sidney Souers, recommended that the panel be composed of representatives from the departments of State, Army, Navy and Air Force, as well an "observer" representative from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[7] This provision was dropped in the final version, which simply stated that the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) "is charged with ensuring that [covert] psychological operations are consistent with U.S. foreign policy and overt foreign information activities, and that appropriate agencies of the U.S. Government, ..., are kept informed of such operations which will directly affect them."[4]

From NSC 10/2 to NSC 5412 (June 1948–March 1955)Edit

According to the Church Committee, throughout the period June 1948 to March 1955, "NSC directives provided for consultation with representatives of State and Defense". But "these representatives had no approval function. There was no formal procedure or committee to consider and approve projects."[8]

NSC 10/2 PanelEdit

The arrangement in NSC 4-A did not please the influential director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff (S/P), George F. Kennan.[9] Under his leadership, a S/P paper titled "The inauguration of organized political warfare"[10] was circulated in the NSC in early May 1948, which said that "there are two major types of political warfare—one overt and the other covert. Both, from their basic nature, should be directed and coordinated by the Department of State." Yet Kennan wanted to have his cake and eat it too: the paper made it clear that the State Department should not be formally associated with the conduct of covert operations.[9] Then the Joint Chiefs of Staff entered the fray by guarding its prerogatives, particularly in wartime, especially in theatres of war.[11] As a result of the controversy spurred by Kennan, NSC 4-A was replaced by NSC 10/2,[12] approved by President Harry Truman on 18 June 1948, creating the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). Kennan was still not satisfied and continued to press for State control, hoping that his choice for OPC director, Frank Wisner, would be loyal to the State Department—he was not.[13]

NSC 10/2 was the first presidential document which specified a mechanism to approve and manage covert operations, and also the first in which the term "covert operations" was defined.[14] NSC 10/2 charged the DCI with "Ensuring, through designated representatives of the Secretary of State and of the Secretary of Defense, that covert operations are planned and conducted in a manner consistent with US foreign and military policies and with overt activities."[12] The representatives to this "10/2 Panel", also known as the "OPC Consultants",[15] were Kennan for State (1948–1950) and Joseph McNarney for Defense (1948–1949).[16] The panel, which met about once a week, was supplanted from January 1950 on by the regular attendance of a representative from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[17] According to Anne Karalekas, a Church Committee staffer, it did not constrain the OPC:

[The 10/2 Panel was] not an approval body, and there was no formal mechanism whereby individual projects had to be brought before [it] for discussion. Because it was assumed that covert action would be exceptional, strict provisions for specific project authorization were not considered necessary. With minimal supervision from State and Defense and with a shared agreement on the nature of the OPC mission, individuals in OPC could take the initiative in conceiving and implementing projects.[16]

In the first half of its existence, OPC was not really under CIA's control. In the words of Edward P. Lilly, DCI Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, "although authorized by NSC-10/2 to supervise OPC, had allowed OPC to go its own way." OPC was brought under CIA control in October 1950, when Walter Bedell Smith became DCI.[18] OPC was merged on 1 August 1952 with the CIA branch responsible for espionage, the Office of Special Operations (OSO), to form the Directorate of Plans (DDP).

NSC 10/5 PanelEdit

Truman swelled the bureaucracy on 4 April 1951 when he established the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB). DCI Smith, seeking more high-level policy guidance, wanted the PSB "to replace the 10/2 Panel as approval body";[19] this proposal was adopted by the NSC.[16] NSC 10/5[20] tried to specify the purpose of the PSB. The 10/2 Panel, which continued to function,[21] was replaced in February 1952 by an enlarged 10/5 Panel, which also included PSB staff.[22] According to an internal CIA review from 1967, the 10/5 Panel "functioned much as the 10/2 Panel had, but the resulting procedures proved cumbersome and potentially insecure."[23]

According to John Prados, the CIA cut the PSB out of the loop, establishing instead an internal mechanism for approval of operations.[24] In 1953, DCI Smith said that the PSB was "incompetent and its work irrelevant".[25]

"As the Truman administration ended", writes the Office of the Historian,

CIA was near the peak of its independence and authority in the field of covert action. Although CIA continued to seek and receive advice on specific projects from the NSC, the PSB, and the departmental representatives originally delegated to advise OPC, no group or officer outside of the DCI and the President himself had authority to order, approve, manage, or curtail operations.[26]

Enter EisenhowerEdit

The Eisenhower administration took office on 20 January 1953. When Eisenhower replaced the PSB with the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) on 2 September 1953, he also did away with the 10/5 Panel, reverting to "a smaller group identical to the former 10/2 Panel, without OCB staff participation."[23] On 15 March 1954, Eisenhower approved NSC 5412,[27] which required CIA to consult with OCB.[23] Although Eisenhower would later congratulate the CIA with its success in deposing Guatemala's democratically elected President, Jacobo Árbenz, he was privately irked by CIA's unauthorized bombing of SS Springfjord. According to Prados, that incident "convinced Eisenhower of the need for more rigorous control over covert action".[28]

Planning Coordination Group (March 1955–December 1955)Edit

The arrangement in NSC 5412 suffered the same problem as the 10/5 Panel;[23] OCB "included more officials than ought to be concerned with secret war."[29] So on 12 March 1955, Eisenhower approved NSC 5412/1,[30] creating a more senior Planning Coordination Group (PCG) within OCB. Significantly, the directive explicitly charged PCG with approving covert operations.[31] The PCG proved to be a failure; its chairman, Nelson Rockefeller, recommended the abolishment of PCG before year's end.[32] According to Prados, the problem was that CIA had not been forthcoming with details, latching on to a mention of "need-to-know" in NSC 5412/1. The next directive would solve this by creating a committee "so high-powered there could be no question" of its need to know.[29]

Special Group/303 Committee (December 1955–February 1970)Edit

NSC 5412/2[33] was approved by Eisenhower on 28 December 1955, a directive which remained in force for 15 years.[31] Paragraph 7 specified the new oversight mechanism:

Except as the President otherwise directs, designated representatives of the Secretary of State and of the Secretary of Defense of the rank of Assistant Secretary or above, and a representative of the President designated for this purpose, shall hereafter be advised in advance of major covert programs initiated by CIA under this policy or as otherwise directed, and shall be the normal channel for giving policy approval for such programs as well as for securing coordination of support therefor among the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA.[33]

The resulting body became known as the 5412 Committee or, from 1957, the Special Group.[34][note 1] It was the first time a "designated representative" of the President was included in the process;[31] Eisenhower used his National Security Advisors for this purpose.[35] The DCI was an ex officio member.[36] In 1957, Eisenhower made the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a member as well.[37] In practice the membership of the Special Group varied on an ad hoc basis.[38][26]

In late 1956, the newly formed PBCFIA, which had turned a candid eye towards covert operations, took issue with the "very informal" procedures of the Special Group.[39][40] Consequently, an annex[41] to NSC 5412/2 was approved by Eisenhower on 26 March 1957, clarifying project approvals, and for the first time requiring the CIA to circulate "proposal papers" in advance of approval.[40] The board continued to press for more prominence to the Special Group to keep the CIA from freewheeling. Eisenhower himself saw the proper functioning of the Special Group as crucial to fend off initiatives for meaningful congressional oversight of covert operations.[42] On 26 December 1958 Eisenhower asked the Special Group to institute weekly meetings,[37] with the result that "criteria for submission of projects to the Group were, in practice, considerably broadened."[43]

Kennedy administrationEdit

The Special Group fell by the wayside when new administration of John F. Kennedy took office on 20 January 1961; although it remained "in theory intact", in practice it "took a backseat to meetings at which JFK personally presided".[44][note 2] After the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Special Group returned to prominence,[43] and new procedures were set out in July 1961.[47] In the wake of the scandal, DDP Richard M. Bissell Jr. suggested the name and workings of the Special Group be made public to demonstrate to the American people that the CIA was under effective executive oversight; that did not happen.[48]

A second Special Group (Augmented) existed from November 1961 to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.[26] The only difference was that it was specifically dedicated to managing the Cuban Project which sought to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime, and was headed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy.[49] After the Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of destruction, management of the war against Castro was transferred to discussions in the EXCOMM and NSC proper, before being handed over to an "obscure NSC appendage" known as the Standing Group chaired by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy.[50]

Johnson administrationEdit

The Special Group was renamed to the 303 Committee on 2 June 1964, in response to the publication of the book The Invisible Government by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, which made the old name public.[51] A NSC staffer had recommended the new name be "something utterly drab and innocuous" to deflect away attention.[52] The number refers to the national security directive which effected the change, NSAM 303.[52][53] Alternatively, the Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency by W. Thomas Smith, Jr. claims the name derives from “a room number in the executive office complex in Washington D.C.”[54]

40 CommitteeEdit

On 17 February 1970, President Richard Nixon approved NSDM 40,[55] superseding and revoking NSC 5412/2, and replacing the 303 Committee with the 40 Committee. Among the few substantive changes introduced by Nixon was the inclusion of Attorney General John N. Mitchell and a requirement to review covert programs annually.[56] Like earlier, public exposure was the motive for changing the name; National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger explained to Nixon that "In view of recent mention of the 303 Committee in the public media, the directive changes the committee name to coincide with the number assigned to the NSDM itself, which is 40."[57]

Nixon and Kissinger, who was charged with overseeing all covert operations on Nixon's behalf,[58][54] kept the 40 Committee out of the loop on almost all the major and sensitive decisions, and the 40 Committee stopped having meetings; in 1972 it only met once.[56]

Operations Advisory GroupEdit

On February 18, 1976, 40 committee was replaced by the Operations Advisory Group, in accordance with Executive Order 11905 issued by Gerald Ford. The new group was composed of the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of Central Intelligence.[59]

NSC Special Coordination CommitteeEdit

The following year, on May 13, 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued Executive Order 11985 which updated the previous order, and renamed the Operations Advisory Group to the NSC Special Coordination Committee (SCC).[60]

National Security Planning GroupEdit

Under the Reagan administration, the Special Coordination Committee was replaced by the National Security Planning Group (NSPG) which included the Vice-President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the Assistant for National Security Affairs, and the Director of the CIA.[61] One level below the NSPG was the Policy Coordination Group (PCG), first known as the Crisis Pre-Planning Group (CPPG); one source describes the PCG as the actual successor to the Special Coordination Committee.[62]

Special Intelligence OfficeEdit

In 2002–2003, during the Bush Administration, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith created a special-purpose group encompassing and focusing on all military and intelligence efforts involving Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Near East countries, as well as all activities falling under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. This group has been said to have been responsible for stovepiping selective raw intelligence data, bypassing analysis processes as well as bypassing customary cooperation and coordination with NSA, Mossad, and other intelligence entities in order to shape decisions as to the war with Iraq. Its functions were morphed in the Office of Special Plans, which was subsequently investigated for manipulations of intelligence, unlawful activities, and espionage.[63]


  1. ^ It had many similar designations. For example: Special Group 5412, 5412 Group and Special NSC 5412/2 Group.
  2. ^ Some sources actually claim the Special Group was disbanded at this time.[45][46]


  1. ^ a b c Corke 2006, pp. 102–104.
  2. ^ Prados 2006, p. 35.
  3. ^ Houston, Lawrence R. (25 September 1947). Office of the Historian (ed.). "CIA Authority to Perform Propaganda and Commando Type Functions". history.state.gov.
  4. ^ a b FRUS. "NSC 4-A – National Security Council Directive to Director of Central Intelligence Hillenkoetter". history.state.gov.
  5. ^ Mitrovich, Gregory (2000). Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956. Cornell University Press. p. 17. ISBN 0801437113.
  6. ^ FRUS. "NSC 4-A – Draft Directive to Director of Central Intelligence Hillenkoetter". history.state.gov.
  7. ^ FRUS (16 December 1947). "Memorandum From the Executive Secretary (Souers) to the National Security Council". history.state.gov.
  8. ^ Church Committee (26 April 1976). "Final Report, Book I". p. 49.
  9. ^ a b Corke 2006, pp. 108–109.
  10. ^ "The inauguration of organized political warfare". history.state.gov. 4 May 1948.
  11. ^ Lilly 1951, pp. 45–47.
  12. ^ a b FRUS. "NSC 10/2 – National Security Council Directive on Office of Special Projects". history.state.gov.
  13. ^ Corke 2006, pp. 111–112.
  14. ^ Prados 2006, pp. 40–41.
  15. ^ Gustafson 2012, p. 149.
  16. ^ a b c Karalekas 1976, pp. 34–35.
  17. ^ Lilly 1951, p. 89.
  18. ^ Lilly 1951, p. 90.
  19. ^ Prados 2006, p. 81.
  20. ^ FRUS. "NSC 10/5 – SCOPE AND PACE OF COVERT OPERATIONS". history.state.gov.
  21. ^ Allen, Raymond B. (20 February 1952). "Procedure for Handling 10/5 Matters in PSB". history.state.gov.
  22. ^ Barnes, C. Tracy (7 May 1952). "BRIEFING TO THE PSYCHOLOGICAL STRATEGY BOARD ON SOME 10/5 PROBLEMS". history.state.gov.
  23. ^ a b c d CIA (23 February 1967). "Secret appendix C to the Katzenbach Committee's report – COORDINATION AND POLICY APPROVAL OF COVERT OPERATIONS".
  24. ^ Prados 2006, pp. 80–82.
  25. ^ Gustafson 2012, p. 155.
  26. ^ a b c "Note on U.S. Covert Actions". history.state.gov.
  28. ^ Prados 2006, pp. 148, 121 (quoted).
  29. ^ a b Prados 2006, p. 150.
  30. ^ FRUS. "NSC 5412/1 – Covert Operations". history.state.gov.
  31. ^ a b c Church Committee (26 April 1976). "Final Report, Book I". pp. 50–51.
  32. ^ Rockefeller, Nelson (14 December 1955). "Report of the Planning Coordination Group". Planning Coordinating Group.
  33. ^ a b FRUS. "NSC 5412/2 – Covert Operations". history.state.gov.
  34. ^ Jackson 1973, p. 162.
  35. ^ Jackson 1973, p. 78.
  36. ^ Daugherty, William (2004). Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency. University Press of Kentucky. p. 136. ISBN 0813123348.
  37. ^ a b Prados 2006, p. 182.
  38. ^ Karalekas 1976, p. 51.
  39. ^ Edwards, Philip K. (Summer 1969). "The President's Board: 1956–1960, Overseeing the intelligence community". Studies in Intelligence. Central Intelligence Agency. p. 126.
  40. ^ a b Prados 2006, pp. 160–161.
  41. ^ For the text of the annex: Coyne, J. Patrick (9 May 1961). "Covert Operations". President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. pp. 14–15.
  42. ^ Prados 2006, pp. 180–182. For Eisenhower's views on congressional oversight, see pp. 182, 151–152.
  43. ^ a b Church Committee (26 April 1976). "Final Report, Book I". p. 52.
  44. ^ Prados 2006, p. 241.
  45. ^ Daugherty, William (2004). Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 151ff. ISBN 0813123348.
  46. ^ Friedman, Rebecca R. (17 March 2011). "Crisis Management at the Dead Center: The 1960-1961 Presidential Transition and the Bay of Pigs Fiasco". Presidential Studies Quarterly. 41 (2): 324. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2011.03856.x. ISSN 0360-4918.
  47. ^ Jackson 1973, p. 81.
  48. ^ Prados 2006, p. 375.
  49. ^ Prados 2006, p. 286.
  50. ^ Prados 2006, p. 313.
  51. ^ Church Committee (26 April 1976). "Final Report, Book I". p. 53n19.
  52. ^ a b Jessup, Peter (19 May 1964). "Proposed Name Change for Special Group (5412)". National Security Council.
  53. ^ "NSAM 303". discoverlbj.org. 2 June 1964.
  54. ^ a b Smith, Jr., W. Thomas. "40 Committee". Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003. (p. 104) ISBN 9781438130187.
  55. ^ "National Security Decision Memoranda 40" (PDF). fas.org.
  56. ^ a b Prados 2006, pp. 385–387.
  57. ^ Henry Kissinger (16 February 1970). "Responsibility for the Conduct, Supervision and Coordination of Covert Action Operations" (PDF).
  58. ^ Prados 2006, p. 382.
  59. ^ "Proposals for Intelligence Reorganization, 1949-2004" (PDF). United States Department of State.
  60. ^ "Executive Order 11985". Federation of American Scientists. May 13, 1977.
  61. ^ Loch K. Johnson (March 1989). "Covert Action and Accountability: Decision-Making for America's Secret Foreign Policy". International Studies Quarterly. JSTOR 2600495.
  62. ^ Prados 2006, p. 496.
  63. ^ Julian Borger in Washington, Richard Norton-Taylor and Michael Howard (30 January 2003). "Al-Qaida and Iraq: how strong is the evidence?". The Guardian.


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