Covert Action as a Tool of Presidential Foreign Policy

Author: Carter, John J.
This work is a study of presidential employments of covert action as a foreign policy tool during six presidential administrations from Kennedy through Reagan. It offers the reader brief accounts of covert operations undertaken by the American intelligence community during the critical period from 1961 to 1989. The accounts examine and illustrate the evolving nature of the relationship between the American presidency and the burgeoning intelligence community during the middle to late Cold War era. Much of the analysis focuses on the recurring tension between presidential efforts to subordinate and control the intelligence community and the centrifugal forces of bureaucratic politics which led the key agencies of the community to seek larger roles and more important positions within the executive policy making process. Between 1961 and 1989, both the presidency and the intelligence community faced significant challenges from within both their political and policy environments. This work analyzes how these challenges combined with the Cold War international environment to motivate some of the most controversial and dangerous employments of covert action in the history of America’s secret foreign policy.


“It has been nearly fifty years since David Wise informed American readers of an ‘invisible government’ operating in the United States. Although much more has been learned about the contours of that government in the previous half century, much more remains to be learned. Dr. John Carter, in this third volume of his multi-volume work, has chosen for his analysis how this invisible government intersects with the most visible branch of government in the American republic: the executive branch ... The analysis of covert operations as a foreign policy tool of the executive, of course, is of more than mere historical interest. As Dr. Carter notes in his conclusion, America’s ‘war on terror’ has not only brought the role of presidentially-authorized covert operations to the fore again, but has also raised serious questions about the balance of power at the national level. In this case, the past is indeed prologue, and the lessons to be learned from the case studies in this volume were never more applicable. In short, this volume not only illuminates its subject matter, but makes one all the more eagerly anticipate the next volume in this excellent series.” – (from the Preface) Professor Richard Bradley, Central Methodist University

“This third volume of Dr. Carter’s trilogy on covert action and the American presidency fills a relatively empty niche in the literature on the American presidency. It is well-organized, well-researched, and well-written. By focusing on the role of covert operations in foreign policy implementation, Dr. Carter continues to offer fresh insights into modern presidential administrations when others might have (wrongly) concluded that little more needed to be said ... as a reader, I appreciated Dr. Carter’s clear and transparent prose style, as well as his ability to guide the reader through the intricacies of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Iran-Contra affair, and other complex events described with peerless lucidity ...” – Professor Malcolm L. Cross, Tarleton State University

“In this third volume, Dr. John Carter continues tracing how the use of covert action has shaped the Presidency, from the Revolutionary War to the present. Covert activities are simply that – covert; and it is only recently, with, for example, the Freedom of Information Act, that such a systematic study as this one has become possible. Otherwise, it is only when things go wrong that knowledge of covert activities becomes public ... This is an excellent political history that weaves together the simple but important fact that things are not unconnected and have effects beyond the present ...” – Professor O.A. Robinson, Central Methodist University

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Historic Roots of Covert Action
3. The Illusion of Camelot
4. Covert Operations in the Kennedy Administration
5. The Early Johnson Presidency
6. The Late Johnson Presidency
7. The Political Context of the Nixon Presidency
8. Covert Operations during the Nixon Presidency
9. The Politics of the Ford Presidency
10. Covert Action in the Ford Administration
11. A Retreat from Empire: Covert Operations in the Carter Administration
12. The Reagan Administration: Covert Action Reborn
13. Lessons and Conclusions
Appendix A: Presidential Election Results
Appendix B: Party Control of Government
Appendix C: Directors of Central Intelligence