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Timeline of US Covert Actions

Reports in the United States suggest the Obama administration has begun covert operations in Libya to help rebels trying to dislodge the government of Moammar Gadhafi. These reports have raised questions such as how to define covert action or covert operations. Also, how do covert activities differ from clandestine action or clandestine operations?

The accepted convention among those working in the intelligence field defines covert action or covert operations as a government effort to change the economic, military, or political situation in a foreign country or territory in a hidden way. Clandestine action is the more “traditional” form of espionage or intelligence activity.

In this country the difference is not just one of words but of legal status. Since 1974, U.S. law has required that any covert action by intelligence operatives must be justified in advance by presidential authorization, as detailed in a document called a “finding.” There also must be “timely” notification to key members of Congress, such as the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Neither of those conditions apply to clandestine operations.

Most covert action by the United States is carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, which has its own paramilitary branch. However, members of the military’s special-forces units also take part in such activities in many instances.