For the past 11 years, and especially the during the last five, a significant portion of U.S. foreign policy and warfighting has been conducted through covert action -- the secret efforts led by intelligence agencies to protect America's national security abroad. While these efforts have clearly been successful in many cases, they have grown much larger than the unique, limited means they were designed to be. Today, covert operations appear to have expanded to include what have traditionally been overt military and diplomatic functions, blurring the lines of authority and leaving the public and most of Congress in the dark.
To ensure the continued availability of covert action -- a highly valuable and effective tool under the right circumstances -- we must make certain that no president misuses, overuses, or employs this tactic simply out of convenience or the desire to avoid oversight and debate. As a result, it is important to ask just how much of U.S. foreign policy is conducted secretly. The answer, unfortunately, appears to be too much.
As President Barack Obama seeks to engage Congress on the future of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional authorization that grants the president authority to use force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the time has come for our reliance on covert action to come out into the open and be subject to real policy debate and oversight.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies took the fight to the enemy, working to protect America's vital interests and inform our decision makers, while at the same time preparing the battlespace in Afghanistan for our men and women in uniform. That effort, and those that followed, demonstrated the value of quick, decisive, and precise action by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Since the creation of the modern intelligence community in 1946, various declassified operations attest to the vital role that covert action can play in advancing American interests. Its very existence ensures that overt military action -- with its significant footprint of American boots on the ground -- is not the only option when diplomacy fails. Covert action can also provide America's partners -- who for domestic or international political reasons cannot accept overt assistance from the United States -- with a measure of plausible deniability.
But the trend toward ever-increasing use of covert action also has damaging effects. In particular, it can undermine -- or at least run counter -- to larger, publicly stated foreign policy goals. Earlier this year, for example, Afghan President Hamid Karzai claimed to have been receiving cash in secret from the CIA for more than a decade. Press accounts alleged that the amounts involved may have reached into the tens of millions of dollars, but questions about the accountability of the U.S. tax-payer-funded cash transfers have been stonewalled. If the claims are accurate, they raise significant foreign policy issues, not least because a pillar of U.S. assistance in Afghanistan has been to reinforce the rule of law and combat corruption.