September 25, 2023The Intersectionforeign affairsintelligence

Covert action is an instrument of statecraft

I am unimpressed with arguments that suggest that liberal democracies do not engage in targeted killings.

Mint This is an annotated version of my The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

(Note: The print version of this column appeared under the headline Covert action is a troublesome but often useful tool of statecraft”. I had proposed sometimes useful which is an accurate representation of my opinion.)

There is not enough information in the public domain to assess the Canadian government’s allegation that Indian officials were involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, but we should not be too impressed by media commentary along the lines of India wants to be like Israel but is ending up like Russia” or that democracies don’t engage in targeted killings”.

Covert action — included targeted killings — is an instrument of statecraft and present in the toolkit of all sovereign states, including democracies.

Ronen Bregman

Opening his history of Israeli targeted killing operations, Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist, states that Since World War II, the country has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world”, killing more than 1000 people by the turn of the century and carrying out another 800 operations in the years since. By his count, the United States carried out 48 target killings during the George W Bush presidency and 353 under the Obama administration. Rory Cormac, a British scholar, finds that while MI6 has never been in the business of killing people…a pattern exists of indirect involvement in killings, without British agents having to pull the trigger—or even give the order—themselves.” As he points out in this Five Books interview, the covert action scene is mainly dominated by Britain, America, Israel and France.”

Rory Cormac

Those arguing that only rogue states engage in targeted killings need a strong dose of self-awareness. The odious label rogue state’ is more an indication of how much its adversaries control the global narrative and their perception of interests. Being so labelled has political and economic consequences, but it is important to remember that the term is political and subjective. To be sure, targeted killings transgress international norms. They are, therefore, an indicator of power. The more powerful the state, the more easily it can transgress and the more easily it can get away with the act. We might not like it, but this is just the the way the world is.

These four tests set a higher bar than the three what if’s”, including the New York Times test”, that Treverton proposes in his 2003 book, Intelligence for an Age of Terror

From a realist perspective, the question is not whether covert action is good or evil, but whether it is effective.

It must pass four tests. First, whether you have the capabilities to carry it out; second, whether you have the capacity to get away with it; third, whether you achieved the desired objectives; and fourth, whether you can manage the unintended consequences.

By their very nature, covert actions are highly risky. The bar for success is extremely high and even the simplest of operations can have severe unintended consequences.

Covert Action (1987) by Gregory F Treverton, via

It was in part for this reason that the US Congress set up the Church Committee in 1974 to investigate the excesses of the CIA. Consistent with the constitutional culture of the United States, there have been periodic attempts to place covert actions under a legal framework, fix accountability and institute oversight. But as Gregory Treverton, a senior intelligence policy expert, argued in his masterful analysis of covert action back in 1987, the tension between accountability and operational necessity cannot be resolved.” Leaders can’t have plausible deniability if there has to be a mandatory accounting trail.

Contrary to what you read in spy thrillers and chest-thumping action movies, intelligence officials do not like killing people. Even more than their CIA and MI6 counterparts, India’s intelligence officers are strongly opposed to target killings. In response to the Canadian allegations, A S Dulat, former R&AW chief said We don’t do these things. We do not go around assassinating people. Let me make this very clear.” Treverton found that the CIAs dislike for target killings often caused the dirty work to be outsourced to the Mafia and rebel groups (and, more recently to private contractors.) There is literally a principal-agent problem that expands the scope for errors of judgement, loss of control, exposure and mission failure.

While realists will not distinguish the type of regimes on the two sides of a covert action, is it correct for democracies carry out target killings in other democracies? Unless you accept the unreasonable assertion that all democracies have similar interests, the answer is yes, it can be. If cooperation at the law-enforcement and diplomatic level fails and there is an imminent threat to national security, reasonable people can agree that covert action ought not be ruled out. The question then is whether the considered action passes the four above-mentioned tests.

Omer Aziz’s op-ed in The Globe and Mail is insightful.

I will not be surprised if it emerges that New Delhi has used the covert action option in Canada. Ottawa is within its rights to protest, but I am unsure of the wisdom of the course it is pursuing. There is much to admire in Canada’s commitment to liberty, but it cannot condone preparations for an armed struggle in India. The demand for Khalistan among Canadian nationals has very little to with state of civil liberties in India (and, as Shekhar Gupta explains, enjoys little purchase among Sikhs in India). Ottawa is wrong to conflate the two. At this time Canadians are justifiably concerned about foreign interference in their democracy. So are Indians. Good politics and astute differences can reconcile these differences and rebuild trust. It is in the interests of both New Delhi and Ottawa to quickly head in this direction.

PS: In recent years, I have been warning that engaging the diaspora is a complex matter and can create problems for foreign policy. The Canadian matter is just one example. We will see more.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

If you would like to share or comment on this, please discuss it on my GitHub Previous
The essence of engineering
Diaspora politics has a messy dimension that will get messier

© Copyright 2003-2024. Nitin Pai. All Rights Reserved.