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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.

Chronological list of some covert operations supported or initiated by the U.S. since late 1940s
EUROPE, 1948Funds and propaganda are used to stop communist parties from achieving electoral gains in postwar Italy and France.
ALBANIA, 1949CIA funds attempts by British counterpart, MI-6 to overthrow Albania’s communist government. The operation is compromised from the start by a Soviet agent inside MI-6, Kim Philby.
PHILIPPINES, 1948-54In a counterinsurgency campaign, funds and other support are funneled into the Philippines to defeat the leftist Huk insurgent movement.
IRAN, 1953Fears that Iran’s civilian government would nationalize country’s oil industry prompted U.S. and Britain to agree on a secret plan (Operation Ajax) to organize a military coup to overthrow PM Mohammad Mossadeq and restore Iran’s monarchy.
GUATEMALA, 1954President Jacobo Guzman is ousted in a CIA-backed coup.
CUBA, 1959-1960sRepeated efforts are made to oust President Fidel Castro, including unsuccessful plots to assassinate the Cuban leader.
CUBA, 1961A CIA-trained and funded rebel army lands at the Bay of Pigs in a bid to topple Castro, but is quickly and decisively routed by Cuban forces when U.S.-promised air cover does not materialize.
LAOS, 1964The CIA begins a long program to recruit and train hill tribesmen to fight the communist Pathet Lao.
VIETNAM, 1945-1973CIA’s lengthy involvement in Vietnam includes a controversial program, “Operation Phoenix,” to identify and “neutralize” or kill key communist leaders in South Vietnam.
CHILE, 1973A U.S.-backed coup by Chilean military ousts President Salvador Allende, who is killed in the action.
ANGOLA, 1975As the Portuguese colony is about to gain independence, CIA trains rebels and hires mercenaries to counter what is seen as Soviet and Cuban influence.
NICARAGUA, 1981President Reagan authorizes a program to support anti-government rebels, known as “contras,” to bring down Nicaragua's leftist government.
AFGHANISTAN, 1979Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sparks a large and ambitious program to fund, train and arm Islamist insurgents or “mujahedin” to battle Soviet occupation forces. Moscow pulls its troops out in 1989.
AFGHANISTAN, 2001-presentCIA and military special forces units play a pivotal role in backing Afghan insurgents’ successful bid to oust Taliban government. CIA has been deeply involved in anti-Taliban operations ever since.