Accountability and Democracy

Accountability and Covert Operations

The Iran-Contra Affairs raise various issues about accountability and covert operations. But these issues went far beyond covert operations. They were about covert operations run out of the National Security Council. They were also about what some called the privatization of foreign policy, whereby third parties and third countries took actions to advance goals that the President could not pursue through regular channels.

Senator Hatch made it clear that he did not think that the NSC should ever operate covert operations and that he opposed the diversion of funds from arms sales in Iran to help the Contras. In the same excerpt, he says that the hearings have demonstrated “the difficulties in “privatization of our foreign policy.” Similarly, Elliot Abrams testified that having operations run by the NSC that were unknown to the Department of State was “a formula for disaster.”

Discussion Questions

  • Did the NSC have legal or moral justification for engaging in covert operations in this case?
  • What is the appropriate role of covert operations in U.S. foreign policy, and how should such operations be overseen? Do the values of political accountability inherently contradict the idea of covert operations?
  • What role, if any, should private contractors have in foreign policy operations?

Notes and Additional Resources:

  • Seymour Hersh discussing the “echoes of Iran-Contra” from his March 5, 2007 story in the New Yorker about covert operations in the Middle East supported by third parties outside the Congressional appropriations process.