In what may be one of the most highly publicized covert operations of all time, the Clinton administration is reportedly trying to topple Slobodan Milosevic. Various news accounts have even offered specific details about the effort: financial aid for Serbian opposition groups; recruiting dissidents in the Serbian government and military; computer hacking to infiltrate and drain the Yugoslav president's foreign bank accounts. It all sounds very creative, but as a one-time member and longtime observer of the U.S. intelligence community, I think the administration could be making a huge mistake.

The problem is not that covert action is necessarily wrong or foolish. The problem is that the administration has failed to understand when covert action is effective and when it is not.

Covert action can be a powerful tool in the right situation. Greasing the right palms can help us penetrate terrorist groups. A well-planned disinformation campaign can send an enemy country's scientists on a wild goose chase to build weapons that won't work. U.S. covert support to the resistance in Afghanistan during the 1980s probably hastened the end of the Cold War (albeit at a tremendous cost to the Afghans).

But political leaders often resort to covert action not because it is the best tool available, but because they lack the resolve to employ conventional military or diplomatic measures. This seems to have been especially true of the Clinton administration: It made a similar miscalculation in Iraq a few years ago, when President Saddam Hussein appeared likely to cling to power. Administration officials, unwilling to use conventional military force to finish him off, approved a covert operation.

The operation collapsed in the summer of 1996, according to a Washington Post account that described the effort in detail. The CIA had been cooperating with people within the Iraqi regime who were considering a coup d'etat, The Post reported. The agency also had supported two Kurdish resistance groups--the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)--which hoped to take control of Iraq's northern regions.

The result was a disaster. Saddam Hussein infiltrated the ranks of his opponents in Baghdad, and soon rolled up the conspirators. At the same time, he played one Kurdish resistance group against the other. When the KDP turned against the PUK, Saddam Hussein used the opportunity to send his troops back into Kurdistan. The resistance was crushed.

Most Americans paid little attention at the time, but this was the most costly U.S. covert action failure since the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. The Iraqis are said to have killed more than 100 Kurds suspected of cooperating with the United States, and the CIA lost communications and computer gear that will compromise future intelligence operations. What's more, our credibility suffered badly throughout the Middle East. Coincidence or not, this was when U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia quietly began to patch up their relations with Iraq and Iran.

The parallels between the Iraq operation and the one planned for Serbia are troubling--covert support to a fractured opposition with no specific program for reform, and collaboration with plotters in a strongman's entourage. If the formula did not work last time, why would it work this time?

The single most important question to ask about any proposed covert operation is, "Why do you want to act covertly?" Almost any operation that can be carried out as a covert operation--propaganda, support of insurgents, political action--also can be carried out overtly. Covertness usually makes operations harder, not easier, and much more risky. It makes sense only when deniability is essential for the success of an operation.

For example, we may wish to conceal our role in an intelligence-gathering mission that could alert an opponent to an impending attack (as occurred before the failed Iranian hostage rescue in 1980). Or we might want to avoid the risk of provoking reprisals against an ally (as when U.S. support for the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s threatened to bring Soviet reprisals against neighboring Pakistan, which was providing assistance).

In the case of Serbia, however, it is hard to understand why an effort to overthrow Milosevic needs to be covert. After all, NATO's 78-day bombing campaign is over and an international tribunal has indicted Milosevic as a war criminal. By now the entire world is aware that the United States and its NATO allies would like to see him gone.

There may be a few instances today in Serbia in which covert aid might make sense--providing intelligence and security assistance to democratic Serbian dissidents comes to mind--but usually we can, and should, act openly. NATO, for example, could explicitly promise to rebuild Serbian bridges and factories once Milosevic is out. Private groups in the West could provide overt aid to political organizations in the countryside, where Milosevic's support is weaker. All of this would give the opposition, which is growing ever bolder in its public protests, the leverage it needs.

Covert action in Serbia could backfire, and at great cost. No covert action remains deniable forever. Occupying the moral high ground has been the cornerstone of U.S. strategy in maintaining a united NATO. Milosevic is already using the publicity about this covert action against his opponents, accusing them of being tools of the CIA. Other consequences could follow. We may lose support in the United Nations. We could further antagonize Russia and provide a powerful issue for the communists and nationalists in that country's upcoming elections.

I worry that the administration may be pursuing a covert operation in Serbia for the worst possible reason: It is unwilling to plead its case to the American public for measures that may be costly or risky. (This, after all, was why the administration rejected the use of ground forces during the war.) Or perhaps our political leaders simply lack the experience to know how and when covert action can be used effectively.

The fact that we are reading about these proposed operations suggests that the Clinton administration has failed to make its case convincingly either to Congress or to the intelligence community. Well-planned, broadly supported covert actions typically don't get leaked. And covert actions that do not have broad support should not be carried out.

The questions being raised about the administration's plans--particularly the possible assaults on Milosevic's bank accounts--are well-founded. The kinds of cyberwarfare operations described in Newsweek, Time and other news accounts represent the future of covert action. Because information technology is a strong suit for the United States, our ability to hack into, crack and jam an opponent's computers and communications systems could provide us an edge in certain critical situations.

Unfortunately, political leaders have watched techno-thrillers such as "The Net" and "Enemy of the State" too many times. In reality, hacking into a bank is harder than it looks, and it is unlikely to have a decisive effect anyway. When funds mysteriously disappear from an account, eventually everyone will figure out something fishy is going on.

A further problem is that we have not fully discussed the issues that covert information warfare raises. For instance, what if Milosevic keeps some of his money in Germany, a NATO ally? Should the U.S. government penetrate the computer systems of a German bank? No matter where the bank is located, is it better to tamper with the account or to merely monitor the flow of money so that we can take other actions later?

Officials within the Defense Department, the intelligence community and Congress have been quietly discussing the issues related to covert information warfare for several years. But debate within the policymaking community is not enough. We need a more public discussion. What tactics are acceptable? Whom should we target? What about the risk of retaliation? What do we need to do to protect ourselves? We can deliberate the general principles without revealing the sensitive details. Unless we settle these issues now, and in public, we risk a replay of the CIA scandals of the 1970s.

The early years of the Cold War had been the heyday of covert action--a coup here, a propaganda program there, a guerrilla war in between. Almost all Americans would have objected to excesses such as attempted assassinations and drug experiments on unwitting subjects. But they probably would have favored many of the other operations.

Alas, attitudes changed in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. Lacking a clear mandate, effective oversight and strict guidelines, the CIA was the target of criticism and suspicion when the operations became known. The agency is still feeling the effects.

Administration policymakers may think that hacking into Milosevic's bank account is a creative way to disrupt his regime. Should things go wrong, however, you can bet critics will train their sights not just on the political officials, but on the "irresponsible, out-of-control" CIA. U.S. intelligence will suffer a serious setback, and we may lose a genuinely useful instrument of our national security policy.

Bruce Berkowitz is co-author of a forthcoming book about intelligence in the Information Age (Yale University Press). He was previously an analyst at the CIA and served on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee.