We're in an era of "covert action."
That phrase went into disrepute in the 1970s, when Congress's Church Committee exposed hare-brained CIA plots to eliminate foreign leaders, such as assassinating Fidel Castro with exploding cigars. President Ford banned assassinations, a chastened CIA cast many veteran officers into the cold, and Congress imposed new limits on covert activities. From then on the president would have to approve all operations in writing and notify senior members of Congress. There would be no more "wink-and-nod" authorizations.
Covert action made a comeback in the 1980s, as the U.S. directed billions of dollars in aid to the Afghan anti-Soviet mujahedeen-the most successful covert action in American history. Yet at the same time President Reagan's National Security Council was pursuing a crazy scheme to sell weapons to Iran and channel some of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan Contras, so as to bypass a congressional ban on aid to the guerrillas. The Iran-Contra scandal almost brought down the Reagan administration and once again tarnished the reputation of covert action.
In the 1990s, out of an abundance of caution, the Clinton administration failed to act effectively against Osama bin Laden and the growing danger of al Qaeda. The CIA and the military's Special Operations forces offered proposals for capturing or killing bin Laden and his senior lieutenants, but the risk-averse White House rejected them.
Since 9/11, however, CIA and Special Ops "operators" have been unleashed to take the battle to the jihadists across the world. Some of their actions have been controversial, particularly "extraordinary renditions" (i.e., seizures of suspects abroad) and "enhanced interrogations" at CIA "black sites" which have since closed. President Obama has been critical of aspects of the Bush-era "war on terror," but he has actually accelerated some types of covert action, including the CIA's drone strikes in Pakistan. The CIA is also running several thousand paramilitaries in Afghanistan, in its biggest war effort since Vietnam.
Now another covert-action program appears to have scored a big success. Israeli cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon, a former Israeli military chief of staff, said last week that, as a result of recent setbacks, Iran will not go nuclear until 2014 at the earliest. That's quite a change from earlier Israeli forecasts that Iran could get the bomb in 2011.
Why the extra three years? Mr. Yaalon didn't elaborate beyond the bland statement that "the Iranian nuclear program has a number of technological challenges and difficulties." But it has been widely reported that Siemens computers used to control Iranian nuclear facilities in Natanz and Bushehr were infected by a fiendishly clever virus, called Stuxnet, that is hard to detect and even harder to eradicate.
Meanwhile, there have been several assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. In November, for example, mysterious men on motorbikes attached magnetic mines to cars being driven by Majid Shahriari and Fereydoon Abbasi, both of whom are said to have worked in the Iranian nuclear program. The former was killed, the latter wounded.
Iranian leaders have blamed these attacks on Israel and the United States. While the mullahs blame the Little Satan and the Great Satan for everything under the sun, in this case they are probably right. There has been rampant speculation that the Mossad or the CIA is behind the assassinations (my bet would be the former), and that the U.S. National Security Agency or its Israeli equivalent, Unit 8200, is behind Stuxnet.
Whoever is responsible may have scored the most notable victory yet recorded in the brief annals of cyberwarfare. It appears that Stuxnet has managed to delay the Iranian nuclear program as long as Israeli air strikes might have, while avoiding any of the obvious blowback. Hezbollah has threatened to rain thousands of missiles on Israel in the event of Israeli attacks on its Iranian sponsors, but a computer virus doesn't offer an obvious casus belli even to the most fanatical terrorists.
We shouldn't get carried away with the power of covert programs. There are still many challenges so severe - such as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan - that they cannot be resolved by a handful of secret agents and daring commandos. But covert action can be a valuable part of the policy maker's tool kit, provided that it is integrated into a larger plan.
In the case of Iran, the question is whether we'll make good use of the time apparently bought by successful covert action. If the Obama administration spends the next three years trying to push sanctions resolutions out of the United Nations or trying to open negotiations with Tehran, it will accomplish little. Better to ramp up another covert action program - this one designed to help the Iranian people overthrow their dictators.
The U.S. missed a prime opportunity when Iran's Green Movement was hitting its stride in the summer of 2009. Back then, the Obama administration was still too focused on cutting a deal with the mullahs to extend a helping hand to Iran's democrats. That gave the regime the time and space to stage an effective crackdown. There remains tremendous disaffection with the regime, though, and it could grow with some outside help in the form of money, printed materials, radio and TV broadcasts, tools for circumventing Internet controls, and other aids to revolution.
Of course, Tehran is on guard against what happened with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon - all of which received American assistance. Toppling a regime is far more difficult than impeding a nuclear program or a terrorist plot. It may be impossible. But we must try. Otherwise we risk sacrificing the recent gains achieved by skilled and daring intelligence operatives.