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Covert or secret operations were a major part of the Cold War, and the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies were frequent sponsors of these efforts. The United States had already undertaken numerous and successful covert operations prior to this directive, most notably in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). In both these nations, U.S. covert actions helped install pro-American governments. As this document makes clear, the National Security Council was also responding to the growing number of aggressive, secret communist operations threatening the United States and its allies.
The purposes of American-led covert operations included discrediting communism, increasing the attraction of U.S. policies and values, and building up hidden networks of anti-communist operatives within communist states. The directive authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to plan and execute the operations. The definition of “covert operations” was broad, covering sabotage, propaganda, and political action, among many other activities. As the directive indicates, whatever the action, it was supposed to be conducted in ways to conceal the involvement of the United States or, if such connections were uncovered, to allow the United States to plausibly deny them.
Source: National Security Council Directive, NSC 5412/2, December 28, 1955 [Document 250], The Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950 – 1955, The Intelligence Community, 1950-1955 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007).
National Security Council Directive
The National Security Council, taking cognizance of the vicious covert activities of the USSR and Communist China and the governments, parties and groups dominated by them, (hereinafter collectively referred to as “International Communism”) to discredit and defeat the aims and activities of the United States and other powers of the free world, determined . . . that, in the interests of world peace and U.S. national security, the overt foreign activities of the U.S. Government should be supplemented by covert operations.
The Central Intelligence Agency had already been charged by the National Security Council with conducting espionage and counterespionage operations abroad. It therefore seemed desirable, for operational reasons, not to create a new agency for covert operations, but, subject to directives from the NSC, to place the responsibility for them on the Central Intelligence Agency and correlate them with espionage and counter-espionage operations under the over-all control of the Director of Central Intelligence.
The NSC has determined that such covert operations shall to the greatest extent practicable, in the light of U.S. and Soviet capabilities and taking into account the risk of war, be designed to:
- Create and exploit troublesome problems for International Communism, impair relations between the USSR and Communist China and between them and their satellites, complicate control within the USSR, Communist China and their satellites, and retard the growth of the military and economic potential of the Soviet bloc.
- Discredit the prestige and ideology of International Communism, and reduce the strength of its parties and other elements.
- Counter any threat of a party or individuals directly or indirectly responsive to Communist control to achieve dominant power in a free world country.
- Reduce International Communist control over any areas of the world.
- Strengthen the orientation toward the United States of the peoples and nations of the free world, accentuate, wherever possible, the identity of inter