The CIA, Congress, and covert action

Luca Trenta, Swansea University

In recent years, high-profile episodes have brought back to the fore governments’ deployment of covert actions. Scholarship in International Relations and intelligence studies has explored the rationales behind covert action. Scholars have also debated the signalling function of secrecy, quasi-secrecy, and covertness. Covertness – in particular – has been understood as a method to achieve strategic objectives without risking escalation or openly international law. At the same time, authors have looked at the role of leaks in international relations and their damaging effect for the conduct of a government’s preferred policies.


Building on this existing scholarship, this project explores signalling mechanisms within the domestic sphere. It highlights the role of ‘selective disclosures’ regarding covert operations. Contrary to leaks, ‘selective disclosures’ help policymakers in achieving domestic political objectives. Preliminary findings suggest that these include pacifying domestic and partisan constituencies and pursuing electoral success.


Using an innovative combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, the project explores under what conditions policymakers use selective disclosures. It also aims at assessing the mechanisms (private or more public) through which these disclosures happen, how this knowledge travels within and outside government, and its impact both on the nature and conduct of covert actions, and on domestic (electoral) politics.


The project focuses on two main case studies from radically different ‘eras’ of covert operations. The 1954 covert regime change in Guatemala represents a case during the golden age of covert action, when secrecy was – seemingly – more robust. The US government’s support for the contras during the 1980s, in turn, provides a case of ‘overt covert’ action.