The Search for a ‘Magic Button’ in American Foreign Policy : COVERT ACTION The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World <i> by Gregor F. Treverton (Basic Books: $19.95; 293 pp.) </i>

<i> Aaron, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Nixon and Carter, is the author of the novel "State Scarlet " (Putnam's).</i> Bay of Pigs, 1961.

I first encountered CIA covert action operations in the early 1960s in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where I was serving my initial tour of duty as an American Foreign Service officer. A powerful anti-communist documentary film called “We Will Bury You” had been released commercially in several local theaters. On the second day of screenings, a teen-age boy who was bicycling reels from theater to theater was stopped by a gang of communist toughs. The can of film was stolen and the boy was shot in the head. A public uproar ensued. The U.S. Consulate quickly arranged for the boy to be flown to the U.S. Army hospital in the Panama Canal Zone, where mercifully he recovered.

Years later, when I headed an investigative task force for the Senate Intelligence Committee, I learned the true story of that incident. The “communist toughs” were CIA “assets” hired to create an incident to promote the film. But when the boy resisted and tried to get away with the film, they panicked and shot him.

Gregory F. Treverton’s book, “Covert Action: The Limits of Intervention in the Postwar World,” is full of stories of CIA schemes gone wrong. In one surprising revelation, he describes how CIA Director William Casey, angry at his experts on terrorism for coming up with little evidence linking the Soviet Union to terror groups, ordered them to read Claire Sterling’s famous book “The Terror Network.” They did and found that virtually all of the examples she cited turned out to be CIA disinformation--false stories planted in the foreign press that she unwittingly used in good faith.


But the book also examines operations that, in the view of many, went right--like overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Mossadeq in Iran in the 1950s. Treverton has little patience with arguments that the coup that ousted Mossadeq and restored the Shah to powerlies at the core of our present conflict with Iran. He points out that the Shah was identified with the United States in many ways besides that one--most prominently, wasteful arms purchases from the United States--and that the CIA covert action that secured his throne brought about a quarter century of stability, no small feat in the turbulent Middle East.

Those initial successes set the pattern for other covert actions, some of which were disasters like the Bay of Pigs. This story has been told elsewhere, but Treverton treats us to new insights. Particularly shocking is his explanation that the invasion was considered foolproof because the exile brigade originally planned to land at the town of Trinidad, where, if something went wrong, they could melt into the mountains.

But, at the last minute, Secretary of State Dean Rusk objected, prefering a “quieter site” for the landing. The Bay of Pigs was finally chosen, the planners apparently overlooking the fact that the mountains would then be 80 miles away across a swamp!

Treverton, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, draws important lessons both for the public and for officials responsible for covert operations. He shows how the momentum of covert-action projects often carries them far beyond their original scope, citing not only the Bay of Pigs but efforts against Salvador Allende in Chile, which ultimately ended in the coup in which he was killed, and the Reagan Administration’s undiminished stake in the contras. Treverton explains why covert actions are inherently difficult to control and often produce unintended results--such as U.S. support for the Jonas Savimbi forces in Angola, putting us on the same side as South Africa and thus damaging our reputation throughout black Africa.

Though often critical of the CIA, the author makes clear that one reason Presidents turn to covert action is that the Agency is extremely competent and gets the job done. He points out that Presidents are not tools of the CIA; rather the White House is often the source of pressure to come up with covert operations and even originates some of the more ill-considered ideas, such as the Iran- contra caper.

I recall during my days as a Senate investigator finding a piece of yellow note pad with jottings from a meeting with White House officials during the Kennedy Administration that discussed an “Executive Action” or, in plain English, an assassination capability. The notes referred to it as the “magic button.”

This unfortunately is all too often the mind set of senior government leaders when they consider the “covert option”; namely, that somehow magically it will sweep away threats or obstacles to the success of U.S. policy. As Treverton points out, we have failed as often as we have succeeded, and even then our successes frequently cause us to forget about the underlying causes of the problems we face. For example, after Arbenz was deposed in Guatemala, we ignored Central America until the Sandinistas reminded us of the revolutionary potential of injustice in that region.

Treverton notes that the world’s revolutionaries have also learned a thing or two about covert action. As in Nicaragua they have discovered how to use CIA pressure to rally their publics against U.S. intervention. Fledgling left-wing regimes turn more quickly to Moscow for protection. The contrast with the past is striking: Arbenz was overthrown with 300 men; at the Bay of Pigs we hoped to overthrow Castro with 750 exiles and a tiny air force; but now, the CIA is supporting an army of 10,000 contras and still nobody thinks they have a prayer of displacing the Sandinistas.

The striking change from the 1950s is that virtually all major covert actions now become public, often before they are concluded. Increasingly, the U.S. government doesn’t care. American support for the Afghan resistance is not a secret, only unacknowledged. Still, bad decisions like trading arms for hostages are made without full appreciation of what will happen when, inevitably, the story leaks out.

The most important contribution of Treverton’s brilliant analysis is to demythicize covert action. It is not a romantic “magic button” that does away with the need for sound military and diplomatic strategies. It does not allow us to ignore economic and social realities in the turbulent underdeveloped world. But neither are such CIA operations the cause of all our troubles or inherently evil, as many critics might suggest.

I firmly believe that covert action has a legitimate role in U.S. national security, but as Treverton makes clear, such operations are only as sound as the policy they seek to advance. The risks are always substantial and success is often fleeting.

Ultimately, I became chairman of the National Security Council subcommittee that was responsible for intelligence operations during the Carter Administration. I only wish I had been able to read Treverton’s fascinating and compelling book before doing so. For all those who may in the future have a role in such clandestine intelligence operations, including the watchdogs in Congress, “Covert Action” is required reading.