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January 2007

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Covert Action and U.S. Foreign Policy
Review by Stephen Knott

Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency. By William J. Daugherty. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Pp. xxvii, 298. $32.50 cloth)

William J. Daugherty's Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency is a useful account of a controversial tool of American foreign policy. This book is really two books; the first half examines the “nuts and bolts” of covert operations, while the second half provides a brief history of covert action from Truman to Clinton. Daugherty, a retired senior officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, continually, and rightfully, returns to his thesis that presidents are responsible for covert operations, refuting the myth of the Central Intelligence Agency as a “rogue elephant,” a notion popular with the Church Committee of the 1970s and with the media. Daugherty also observes that critics of covert action neglect its successes and “crucify” as “immoral” operations that “supported right against wrong, democracy over Communism, freedom over oppression.”(p. 201) It is unusual to read such an unequivocal endorsement of the superiority of democracy and the sanctioning of covert operations in an academic text, and it is likely, to the extent that Daugherty's book is noticed, to generate vigorous dissent.

The book's second half is its strongest part, for here Daugherty candidly assesses the strengths and weaknesses of various Directors of Central Intelligence (DCI) and the presidents they served. Daugherty is remarkably blunt at times, with John Deutch the subject of his most scathing criticism. Deutch, one of three Directors of Central Intelligence who served under President Clinton, implemented policies which had “near-disastrous consequences” for the agency (p. 64), while President Clinton's efforts to “develop his own covert action programs were absolute failures”(p. 220). Jimmy Carter and his DCI, Stansfield Turner, who are frequent targets of criticism from within the agency, are portrayed sympathetically by Daugherty, in part because Carter abandoned his misgivings about covert operations during the course of his presidency. Daugherty claims that Ronald Reagan's covert operations “at least based on what has been reported so far, measurably outweigh any failures.”(p. 211) Daugherty argues that Reagan's covert actions in Poland led to the triumph of Solidarity which contributed to the unraveling of the Warsaw Pact and ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is rare in the world of intelligence literature to find Reagan's DCI, William Casey, and Ronald Reagan for that matter, held in such high esteem.

The author relied on a wide range of secondary sources, as well as his insider status, to write this contemporary history of covert action. His role as a former CIA senior officer will render this book suspect to some; nonetheless, Daugherty's account deserves a fair hearing. He is keenly aware of the criticisms of his former agency, and while Daugherty sometimes lets his emotional bond with the CIA get the best of him, on the whole this is a balanced primer on an important tool of American foreign policy. Americans tend to view covert action with disdain, even in the post-September 11th world, and Daugherty's book serves as a corrective to this view. While he acknowledges that covert operations are not magic bullets, he makes a strong case that they serve as a useful compliment to well-crafted American foreign policy. As Daugherty observes, covert action is a “prudent alternative”(p. 20) short of war but more vigorous than diplomacy. One finishes this book convinced that covert action is a vital component in America's war on terror, but less than certain that the United States has what it takes to do the job.


Stephen Knott is an associate professor and research fellow with the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College, and taught at the United States Air Force Academy for seven years. He joined the Miller Center in July of 2001, and is the author of Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency (Oxford, 1996).

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