While these efforts have clearly been successful in many cases, they have grown much larger than the unique, limited means they were designed to be. Today, covert operations appear to have expanded to include what have traditionally been overt military and diplomatic functions, blurring the lines of authority and leaving the public and most of Congress in the dark.
To ensure the continued availability of covert action — a highly valuable and effective tool under the right circumstances — we must make certain that no president misuses, overuses or employs this tactic simply out of convenience or the desire to avoid oversight and debate. As a result, it is important to ask just how much of U.S. foreign policy is conducted secretly. The answer, unfortunately, appears to be too much.
As President Barack Obama seeks to engage Congress on the future of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, the congressional authorization that grants the president authority to use force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the time has come for our reliance on covert action to come out into the open and be subject to real policy debate and oversight.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies took the fight to the enemy, working to protect America's vital interests and inform our decision-makers, while at the same time preparing the battlespace in Afghanistan for our men and women in uniform. That effort, and those that followed, demonstrated the value of quick, decisive and precise action by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Since the creation of the modern intelligence community in 1946, various declassified operations attest to the vital role that covert action can play in advancing American interests. Its very existence ensures that overt military action — with its significant footprint of American boots on the ground — is not the only option when diplomacy fails. Covert action can also provide America's partners — who for domestic or international political reasons cannot accept overt assistance from the United States — with a measure of plausible deniability.
But the trend toward ever-increasing use of covert action also has damaging effects. In particular, it can undermine — or at least run counter — to larger, publicly stated foreign policy goals. Earlier this year, for example, Afghan President Hamid Karzai claimed to have been receiving cash in secret from the CIA for more than a decade. Press accounts alleged that the amounts involved may have reached into the tens of millions of dollars, but questions about the accountability of the U.S. taxpayer-funded cash transfers have been stonewalled. If the claims are accurate, they raise significant foreign policy issues, not least because a pillar of U.S. assistance in Afghanistan has been to reinforce the rule of law and combat corruption.
The president, who has so far refused to provide any explanation for these payments in public or in private, must work with Congress to make sure overt U.S. aid and covert intelligence activities do not run at cross purposes.
Covert action must also not be a substitute for major military operations. While the Pentagon conducts a publicly acknowledged drone campaign targeting terrorists in Yemen, published reports suggest that the intelligence community runs a parallel program of significant scope and scale. While the success of many of these operations is not in dispute, it is also clear that our broad counterterrorism efforts — visible and obvious as they are — should not be handled primarily through covert action designed for unique circumstances where the role of the United States must truly be hidden.
The Obama administration has announced that responsibility for most drone activities will be shifted to the Department of Defense, but more must be done to bring America's offensive activities out into the open. In particular, the president and Congress must work together to ensure, over the long run, that large-scale offensive operations are conducted overtly, preserving covert action for the more precise, high-value efforts it is designed to address.
The problem isn't limited to alleged cash transfers or ostensibly covert counterterrorism operations. In May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved, with broad, bipartisan support, a bill to provide targeted arms and training to vetted, moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. This type of public debate stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration's approach — conducting its deliberations behind the veil of executive privilege, emerging only to announce the result on television, and then retreating back into the shadows to carry out its policies through covert methods. This approach not only lacks decisiveness, but it effectively prevents any real debate about U.S. policy in Syria. It also flies in the face of the statutory requirement that "the role of the United States Government ... not be apparent or acknowledged publicly" in covert actions.
This is not to suggest that the United States should avoid covert means to go after terrorists or to protect U.S. national interests. But it is to suggest that there must be safeguards in place to ensure that U.S. policies are well coordinated and moving in the same direction, and that covert action is not used simply to avoid public discussion and oversight.
Indeed, it is a disservice to members of the intelligence community to ask them to take on foreign policy and warfighting responsibilities except in truly unique circumstances when national security is at stake. Covert action is a valuable tool, but misuse and overuse undermines it.
What is really missing from this equation is responsible leadership in Congress to hold the administration accountable on questions of foreign policy. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to fix this problem, at least with respect to our counterterrorism operations.
Since the passage of the AUMF in 2001, Congress has largely sat silent as hundreds of thousands of Americans have served in harm's way in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This feckless dereliction of duty must end. Congress must take up and debate a new AUMF that is appropriate for the threats and challenges we face today. Only by owning up to our responsibilities can Congress bring foreign policy out into the open, where the American people can hold it accountable.
(Editor’s Note: This guest “Viewpoint” was submitted by U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, who is the ranking member of the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations.)