Covert Action and U.S. National Security Policy



This seminar focuses on the role of covert action in implementing U.S. foreign and national security policies.  Covert action is a unique mission assigned by executive order to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Since its founding in 1947, the CIA has undertaken covert activities intended to influence events abroad at the direction of U.S. presidents.  Covert action is often referred to as the “Third Option” between diplomacy and military action.  Through declassification of official records as well as unauthorized disclosures in books, newspapers, and electronic media, the details of many covert programs (principally, but not exclusively, from the Cold War period) are now available to study.  Indeed, many of the most consequential - - and controversial - - actions of the CIA and the presidents the CIA has served in its 70-year existence involved covert actions.            

Building on a foundational understanding of the Executive branch of government, the mechanisms available to develop and implement national security policies, and the capabilities of the CIA, this course will examine why presidents choose to implement their policies through covert means, what benefits and hazards accompany that choice, and the mixed historical record of U.S covert action programs.  In addition to evaluating why and how covert action is engaged as an instrument of U.S power, the course will review Executive and Legislative mechanisms for supervision and oversight of covert action operations, as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas encountered in such programs.  Through lectures, readings, and class discussions, students will become familiar with significant covert action activities in U.S. history.  The course will include at least one example of a covert influence program undertaken by a foreign government.            

In addition to traditional texts and journal articles, students will be exposed to primary public policy sources including statutes, executive orders, presidential directives, and declassified records related to U.S. intelligence.  Intelligence and national security debates touching on covert action (…that are certain to arise during the semester) will be integrated into the class.  Students will be expected to post a comment on each week’s assigned readings prior to class, to join in class discussions on the readings, to review a book related to covert action that is not already on the syllabus, and to prepare a research paper that evaluates a historical covert action program not studied in class.  Toward the close of the semester, students will participate in a role-playing exercise centered on preparing a notional presidential order or “finding” authorizing a new covert program.  Seminar participants will have the opportunity to engage current and former senior intelligence officials who visit Austin in connection with Intelligence Studies Project events.

The topic of covert action was for many decades impractical to approach in an appropriately factual, rigorous, and balanced manner because of the secrecy that surrounds these government programs. There is now a sufficiently rich factual record on which to debate and shape judgments about the legality, efficacy, and long-term impact of U.S. covert programs from the modern era.  Students will be exposed to many of these materials and invited to reach their own conclusions about this unique policy tool.

This seminar is not principally designed to develop the professional skills of participants, however, there will be several opportunities to conduct relevant research, draft reports, and make short oral presentations to the class.       


Texts/Readings (Illustrative only):

Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (1995)                                   

John Prados, Safe for Democracy: the Secret Wars of the CIA (2006)

William Daugherty, Executive Secrets – Covert Action and the Presidency (2006)

Frances Stonor Saunders, the Cultural Cold War – the CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (2013)

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men – An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2008)

Steve Coll, Ghost Wars – the Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Ladin, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) 

Robert  Grenier, 88 Days to Kandahar  - A CIA Diary (2015) 

James M. Olsen, Fair Play - the Moral Dilemmas of Spying (2006)



Weekly comment on reading(s)                       20%

Informed class/exercise participation               20%

Book review                                                      20%

Research paper (12-15 pages)                        40%    



Stephen Slick is the Director of UT-Austin’s Intelligence Studies Project and a Clinical Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.  Before moving to Austin, he served 28 years in CIA's clandestine service including five assignments abroad.  Between 2005 and 2009, he was a special assistant to the president and the Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform on the staff of the National Security Council.  He received a B.A. from the Pennsylvania State University, J.D. from the UCLA School of Law, and Master in Public Policy from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.