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The Ethics of Clandestine Operations Literature Review

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Document Type:Literature Review


Ethics of Clandestine Intelligence Operations


One of the most common yet least understood methods of operations in the art of statecraft is the clandestine operation (Sheldon 1997). Though popularized in pulp fiction and film, such as the James Bond series franchise and numerous other spy thrillers, clandestine operations remain relatively unknown in the public consciousness—and when they are discussed it is generally with distaste, distrust and vilification (Sheldon 1997). Yet as Sheldon (1997) shows, clandestine operations are not new or unique to the modern world and in fact ancient Rome used them whenever military operations were impractical. Thus, “political influence operations, seeding, propaganda, political patronage, safe havens, political assassination, and paramilitary operations” can all be traced back more or less to similar operations implemented by the ancient Romans (Sheldon 1997, 299). Today, there are many different facets to clandestine operations, and many agencies that use them—from the CIA to the FBI to the NCS (the National Clandestine Service)—and those are just to name a few of the ones in the U.S. Every developed nation has their own agencies that implement clandestine operations as a normal part of statecraft. This literature review examines the role that clandestine operations play in the U.S. today and what the risks of those operations can be.

The Complexity of Clandestine Operations among Multiple Agencies

A big part of clandestine operations is the collection of intelligence. The U.S. Intelligence Community is a complex, complicated amalgamation of agencies each with their own work, sphere of influence and foci. In the Overview of the United States Intelligence Community for the 111th Congress (2009), it is noted that the power bases are many and diverse: “the Director of the CIA is the National Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Manager and serves as the national authority for coordination, de-confliction, and evaluation of clandestine HUMINT operations across the IC, consistent with existing laws, Executive Orders, and interagency agreements” (2). The Overview of the United States Intelligence Community for the 111th Congress (2009) was written to give Congress a detailed picture of the various different agencies and organizations involved in the intelligence community, what their roles were and how they collected and disseminated information. The Overview a vast and complicated, loosely confederated community of agencies and organizations that all embark on their own independent clandestine operations at times—often in ways that are not supportive of a unified aim or of a particular administration’s policy, as Warner and McDonald (2005) point out in their research. The Overview of the United States Intelligence Community for the 111th Congress (2009) states, for instance, that “the National Clandestine Service (NCS) has responsibility for the clandestine collection (primarily HUMINT) of foreign intelligence that is not obtainable through other means. The NCS engages in counterintelligence activities by protecting classified U.S. activities and institutions from penetration by hostile foreign organizations and individuals” (2). Thus, as the Overview showed, there are both intelligence and counter-intelligence operations that fall under the umbrella of clandestine operations at times, and the agencies involved in managing these operations are not necessarily going to be working together or sharing intelligence or even pursuing the same ends simultaneously.

In their research on this issue, Warner and McDonald (2005) note that these various intelligence agencies can be politicized, meaning their actions may not always be aligned with the policies and platforms of the administrations under which they are operating. This was seen in the lead-up to the Iraq War when in the aftermath of 9/11 there was a push by an inner “cabal,” as Seymour Hersh (2003) called it in his research on the post-9/11 wars and the men responsible for initiating them. The “cabal” described by Hersh (2003) existed under the agency heading of Office of Special Plans (OSP), which engaged in a clandestine operation of its own to create the intelligence used to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq. Just to give an example of the conflict that can arise among the various clandestine operations that might occur at any one moment under any one administration, the events leading up to the Iraq War provide a fertile ground for understanding: As Hersh (2003) shows, Bush’s policy advisors in the OSP were involved in their own clandestine operation, which focused on overruling the intelligence analysts at the CIA and shaping foreign policy till it met their own aims and objectives. The “cabal” at the OSP involved in this clandestine operation consisted of a group of pro-Israel and dual Israeli-American citizens such as Abram Shulsky, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, and Scooter Libby: they were, according to Hersh (2003) “a small cluster of policy advisers and analysts…based in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP)” and their clandestine operation rivaled what the CIA and the DIA were doing by supplying the Bush Administration with faulty intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMD operation. The OSP for instance used the intelligence source known as CURVE BALL, a collection of “soft” evidence (unsubstantiated hearsay) alleging collusion between Iraq and terror networks, to push the Bush Administration into invading Iraq. The other agencies did little to stop them, however. Both MI6 in England and the CIA in Langley offered only minimal resistance to the OSP’s claims, thus effectively making them complicit through their relative silence, as Pfiffner and Phythian (2008) have shown in their research. The husband of CIA agent Valerie Plame, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, published in national media an editorial debunking the claims of the OSP. The OSP in turn unmasked Plame, forcing her out of the field. It was in short an all-out war between clandestine actors in what turned out to be a major foreign policy shift in the wake of 9/11 based not on hard intel but rather on a clandestine operation in the Pentagon. The result of the OSP’s clandestine operation in falsifying intelligence on yellowcake uranium passing through Niger into Saddam Hussein’s hands was a war, more than a million dead, and a succession of destructive insurrections in multiple states across…

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…this field could thus be improved upon in a number of ways. First of all, there should be some research conducted into how clandestine operations are developed, implemented, funded and regulated. As many clandestine operations are unlikely to be reported, this would require serious investigative work and the results would undoubtedly be denied by the same agencies and organizations that have information revealed about them, the way Hersh did with the OSP. Nonetheless, this is a necessary step and could be helpful in providing Congress with a better sense of what the intelligence community is actually doing when it comes to clandestine operations and their objectives.

From a theoretical point of view, the research that has been conducted thus far has been adequate and sufficient in explaining the rationale for clandestine operations, particularly that by Sheldon (1997). However, a philosophical and ethical/moral perspective on the rationale for clandestine operations could be beneficial in this field, and there are many investigators, academics and researchers, from Peter Kuznick to Douglas Valentine, who have published extensive works that venture into this subject to some degree. However, a genuine focus on the philosophical and ethical/moral principles that justify clandestine operations could be beneficial in terms of establishing a set of guidelines or parameters that Congress could use for overseeing and regulating the agencies and organizations that engage in these activities.

Finally, research into whether so many agencies and organization should be permitted to engage in clandestine operations could yield some positive results. Currently there is little indication that such a question deserves to be asked, and instead reports by Best, Carter et al. focus instead on how to make the current system/community work with what it has and what all the different agencies and groups and trying to do in the current environment. An alternative perspective on this community could help to answer the question of whether the community itself does not have too much autonomy and ability to wage clandestine operations without discretion. I would look at this topic by engaging in field work, conducting interviews with stakeholders (members of Congress and individuals in the intelligence community or former members of the intelligence community) to obtain more insight and understanding about what really goes on behind the scenes.


This literature review has shown that clandestine operations predate modern society by thousands of years. The ancient Romans practiced clandestine operations in lieu of warfare to satisfy state ambitions. Statecraft today is replete with instances of clandestine operations that range from operations designed to influence politics in other countries and domestically to political assassinations. However, with so many different agencies, organizations and groups flying under the radar like OSP in the Pentagon, the oversight and regulation of clandestine operations is limited to say the least. The moral and ethical risk of this situation is something that needs to be better understood, as too many groups engaging in this type of activity could ultimately undermine the principles of freedom and democracy that…

Sample Source(s) Used


Arnold, A. and D. Salisbury. The Long Arm, 2019. Retrieved from

Barker, Michael J. "Democracy or polyarchy? US-funded media developments in Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11." Media, Culture & Society 30, no. 1 (2008): 109-130.

Best, Richard A. Intelligence to Counter Terrorism: Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service: CRS Report for Congress, 2002.

Carter, Ashton B. "Overhauling counterproliferation." Technology in Society 26, no. 2-3

(2004): 257-269.

Crumpton, Henry A. The art of intelligence: lessons from a life in the CIA's clandestine service. Penguin, 2013.

Hersh, Seymour. Selective Intelligence. The New Yorker, 2003.

McCormick, G. H., & Owen, G. “Security and coordination in a clandestine organization.” Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 31, no. 6-7 (2000), 175-192.

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