Writing about intelligence is never easy, even in a democracy, because so much of the information about this subject remains in heavily guarded vaults inaccessible to outside researchers. Scandals and major intelligence failures are unfortunate experiences for a country, but they contain a silver lining for intelligence scholars. Subsequent inquiries by commissions and legislative committees bring into the public domain relatively large quantities of documents and data about once-secret operations. Government inquiries since the mid-1970s, most notably the Church Committee investigation in 1975 that exposed domestic spying and other abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Hamilton-Inouye Committee that examined the Iran-Contra affair in 1987, the Aspin-Brown Commission study in 1995 of the Somalian and Aldrich Ames intelligence failures, and the 9/11 Commission probe of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, have led to the release of a mountain of formerly classified materials on intelligence.
Yet despite these research bonanzas, scholars and the public more generally still [End Page 106] have had access to only a thin layer of information about the activities of the hidden side of American government during and since the Cold War. This is especially true when it comes to covert action, the operations conducted by the CIA (and occasionally by other agencies) to influence events abroad without revealing the hand of the United States. Covert actions include clandestine propaganda activities, political and economic operations, and, at the extreme, paramilitary wars and assassination plots. The publication of a book written by someone with inside experience in the management of CIA covert actions is therefore bound to provoke interest.
William J. Daugherty, the author of Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency, was clearly well enough placed to write an informed account of covert actions during the Reagan administration (a period subsequently dubbed the "golden age" of covert action) when the U.S. government secretly spent large sums of money ("King George's cavalry," as British intelligence officers refer to funding for secret operations) on anti-Communist operations in Afghanistan to drive out the Soviet Army, in Nicaragua against the Marxist-leaning Sandinista regime, and in Poland to support the pro-democracy Solidarity labor organization. These and other covert actions were planned and implemented by what was then known as the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO), and Daugherty's job for two years in the 1980s was to supervise every covert action carried out against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Of course, this does not mean that he is now at liberty to tell readers everything he learned about secret operations against the Soviet "Evil Empire." Most of the operations remain classified, and Dougherty, as a former CIA employee, was obliged to submit his book manuscript to the agency's Publication Review Board to remove anything its members deemed too sensitive to see the light of day.
Nor is Executive Secrets an angry look back by a disgruntled former intelligence officer who seeks to settle accounts with the CIA by denouncing its leaders and their decisions, an approach that can often produce for the public juicy insights into how the CIA operates. Although Daugherty is candid about some mistakes made by the agency and does settle a few scores against selected bureaucratic foes (the then CIA director John Deutch is a favorite target), he is generally proud of the CIA's record and—within the constrains of protecting sensitive sources and methods—pleased to advertise its successes.
Dougherty's primary objective, he states, is to demonstrate that the CIA throughout its existence has conducted covert actions solely on orders from the president. In 1975, Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, chaired a committee that examined the role of the CIA in covert actions. Church accused the CIA of acting like a "rogue elephant" on a rampage, beyond the control of the White House or congressional overseers. Not so, according to Daugherty. He maintains that the CIA, far from being a rogue agency, was often reluctant when embarking on operations at the insistence of presidents...