Why do democratic governments so often engage in violent covert actions?
The United States is roiled by controversy over Russia’s broad covert operation to undermine the legitimacy of the 2016 presidential election and Western democracy in general. But the U.S. government has interfered in other democracies’ decisions with violent clandestine operations that go back generations.
During the George W. Bush administration, the American public learned about post-9/11 covert actions that many found disturbing, including secret memos authorizing torture of terrorist suspects; a highly secretive program of “extraordinary renditions,” which involved the government-sponsored capture and transfer of detainees from U.S. jurisdiction to other states without due legal process for purposes of detention and interrogation; and “black sites,” or secret prisons operated by the CIA.
But as our research has found, those operations were a continuation of U.S. policy, not a break with it.
Here’s how we did our research — and what we found
We examined unclassified Central Intelligence Agency documents and historical academic research on U.S. interventions to identify 27 U.S. clandestine operations carried out between 1949 and 2000.
Most U.S. “secret wars” were against other democratic states.
Unclassified documents published by the U.S. national security archive at George Washington University show that the British government helped the United States overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh, a democratically elected prime minister of Iran, and tried to block the release of information about its involvement in the coup.
But that’s just one example. In 1954, an anti-Communist “army” trained and armed by the CIA deposed democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala — leading to years of violent civil war and rightist rule. Fifty-seven years later, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, on behalf of the state, asked Guzman’s family for forgiveness.
And in 1981, President Ronald Reagan authorized the funding for the CIA-led “secret wars” against the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. These are but a few examples of the U.S. covert operations abroad.
We also examined the nationality of detainees in the “war on terror” between 2001 and 2006, when the United States was casting the broadest net to find and detain prisoners. The individuals detained by the U.S. military on the orders of the U.S. administration were placed at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba or transferred to Abu Ghraib in Iraq. There is a public record of their detention.
In parallel to the U.S. military operations, the CIA seized several people in foreign territories suspected of hostile actions against the United States. Held incommunicado and without due process of law, these individuals were placed in the CIA’s secret prisons or sent to states known for forced disappearances and torture.
We compiled the list of individuals covertly detained by the CIA from reports by international human rights groups and independent news organizations providing investigative reporting on the CIA renditions program. Our analysis further confirmed that the United States was substantially more likely to use clandestine coercion against citizens of democratic states.
Why do democratic governments engage in frequent violent covert actions?
Policymakers worry whether their actions will be perceived as legitimate. Legitimacy comes in part from keeping policies consistent with citizens’ interests and expectations.
For instance, since wars and violence are inimical to citizens’ interest in self-preservation and freedom, policymakers are predisposed to value peace. Democratic governments will launch open violence only if they think they can persuade citizens that those actions are legitimate.
While working covertly to bring down democracies, the United States also worked to engineer public support for overt use of force, if necessary. For instance, in 1954, the Eisenhower administration spread fearmongering propaganda about the “communist leanings” of the Guatemalan president. The U.S. news media subsequently misrepresented the coup as a successful restoration of democracy in Guatemala, carried out by local freedom fighters.
The news media did not report what it did not know: that the CIA had masterminded and funded the revolt. Similarly, the British government used the BBC’s Persian service to spread anti-Mosaddegh attitudes before the 1954 Iranian coup.
When democratic governments can’t get their citizens to support coercive policies abroad, they — at times — can and do resort to covert force.
Mariya Y. Omelicheva is associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Kansas.
Christian Crandall is professor in the department of psychology at the University of Kansas.
Ryan Beasley is senior lecturer in the school of international relations at St. Andrews University.