Covert Action

Is the “Covert Action” in Syria Actually a Covert Action?

By Jack Goldsmith
Saturday, October 5, 2013, 3:26 PM

I have noted how openly the United States has been leaking information about its covert action to support moderate Syrian rebels – from its inception through the supposed recent ramp-up.  I notice via a post by Marcy Wheeler that the ostensible covert action was discussed openly and explicitly by senior Executive branch officials – the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – in a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month:

SEN. CORKER: What I’m unaware of is why it is so slow in actually helping them with lethal support — why has that been so slow?

SEC. KERRY: I think — I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that. Suffice it to say, I want to General Dempsey to speak to this, maybe Secretary Hagel. That is increasing significantly. It has increased in its competency. I think it’s made leaps and bounds over the course of the last few months.

Secretary Hagel, do you — or General, do you want to –

SEN. HAGEL: I would only add that it was June of this year that the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition, as you all know. We have been very supportive with hundreds of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance. The vetting process, as Secretary Kerry noted, has been significant. But — I’ll ask General Dempsey if he wants to add anything — but we, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action, and as Secretary Kerry noted, probably to go into much more detail would require a closed or classified hearing.

General Dempsey?

SEN. CORKER: As he’s answering that, and if you could be fairly brief, is there anything about the authorization that you’re asking that in any way takes away from our stated strategy of empowering the vetted opposition to have the capacity over time to join in with a transition government, as we have stated from the beginning?

Is there anything about this authorization that in any way supplements that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: To your question about the opposition, moderate opposition, the path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed, capable, moderate opposition. And we know how to do that.

Secondly, there’s nothing in this resolution that would limit what we’re doing now, but we’re very focused on the response to the chemical weapons. I think that subsequent to that, we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a — in a more overt way.

(Marcy Wheeler’s emphasis.)

It will be interesting to watch the Executive branch try to explain why these statements do not constitute acknowledgment of the covert action to support Syrian rebels if anyone seeks a FOIA request related to it.  More broadly, the extensive leaking about the operation, combined with the open discussion of it by top Executive officials, makes me wonder whether the definition of a covert action in  50 U.S. C. § 413b -- that it “is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly” – is even satisfied in this case.  If the Executive branch ever possessed this intention, it didn’t last very long.