States in competition with each other have powerful incentives to engage in deception. Adversaries use deception to convince each other that their resolve is high and that they possess powerful military capabilities. More puzzling is why states that are aligned with each other—which is understood as “a set of mutual expectations between two or more states that they will have each other’s support in disputes or wars with particular other states”—engage in deception. Aligned states would seem, at first glance, to have good reasons to share information about their intentions and plans with each other comprehensively. This sharing facilitates coordination policies towards a common foe and makes joint action more effective. Such comprehensive sharing of information does occur, but on some occasions aligned states withhold valuable information from each other or deliberately lie about their intentions and capabilities. Perhaps the most notorious recent example is the George W. Bush administration’s exaggeration of claims that Iraq possessed a weapons of mass destruction program, which had the goal of persuading aligned states such as Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia to support military action against the country.
Researching covert action is not easy. States pursue such operations to influence events without revealing their handiwork. Doing this successfully requires limiting the number of officials in the know, and enforcing secrecy measures to avoid leaving an incriminating paper trail. The documentary record is deliberately porous as a result, which complicates any effort to test theories about the logic of covert action. Nonetheless, creative and enterprising scholars have produced a number of excellent studies in the last few years, proposing new arguments about the causes of covert intervention, and the effects on international politics.
From the very beginning of the nation’s history, intelligence has been set aside as a conspicuous exception to James Madison’s advocacy of checks-and-balances, spelled out in his Federalist Paper No. 51. The ‘auxiliary precautions’ that this key participant at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (and later America’s fourth President) — the safeguards he had helped build into the Constitution — were never applied to America’s secret intelligence activities. It has been the norm around the world for nations to treat their intelligence services as something special and apart from the rest of government. These agencies wear a cloak of secrecy, have unique access to decision-makers, and are given considerable leeway to carry out their duties without the usual review (in democracies at least) of programs, personnel, and budgets by overseers in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. A nation’s leaders were expected to avert their eyes as the secret services broke laws overseas (a routine occurrence) and engaged in unsavory activities, even assassinations and coups d’état, that would be deemed highly inappropriate for other government agencies.