With Iran on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, the next president faces an impossible choice: bombing Iran's nuclear sites (or supporting an Israeli attack) risks setting off a wider Middle East war that could shock the global economy and invite terrorism here at home. Not bombing Iran could permit a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with even worse consequences.
What's a president to do? The next president—whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney—is likely to do what other, similarly vexed presidents have done: turn to covert action.
This is what President Eisenhower did 60 years ago, during the Cold War. He did not want to fight a war with nuclear weapons and he did not want to wage a conventional war that could spin out of control. So he reached out to the CIA to fight communism secretly and on the cheap. At first, the CIA brought him victories, overthrowing leftist governments in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. But then the agency's luck or skill began to run out. The CIA botched coups in Syria in 1957 and Indonesia in 1958, while gaining a dark reputation for propping up right-wing regimes in the developing world.
Eisenhower, himself a believer in bluffing and an expert at governing with a hidden hand, was a master strategist who skillfully faced down the Kremlin. But he gave the CIA too much free rein. Despite warnings from some advisers, he was reluctant to lose faith in the agency or its director, Allen Dulles. It takes "a strange kind of genius" to run a spy agency, Ike said. The CIA had delivered the president his most valuable intelligence tool, the U-2 spy plane. When, in 1958 and 1959, the U-2 found no more than a couple of ICBMs in the Soviet Union, Eisenhower was able to see that the so-called missile gap was bogus, invented by the Air Force and the Democrats to justify more spending on missiles. But Richard Bissell, Dulles’s protégé and the CIA’s covert-action chief who ran the U-2 program, was a dangerous risk taker, and he failed to warn Eisenhower that Soviet anti-aircraft missiles were climbing high enough to reach the spy plane. When a U-2 was shot down on May 1, 1960, the international incident doomed a summit meeting Ike was hoping to use to bring detente with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower bitterly regretted not firing Dulles.
The CIA next led astray Ike's successor, John F. Kennedy, persuading him that a CIA-trained Cuban exile force could overthrow Fidel Castro. The result was the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy was so mad he wanted to "break the CIA into a thousand pieces."
For decades now, the pattern has been the same: presidents, faced with threats that diplomacy and the military cannot solve, fall for the temptations of covert action.
Wanting to push back more aggressively against communism, President Reagan vowed to bring back the golden days of the CIA under a new director, Bill Casey—and almost got impeached because of the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Casey played a big role. When President George W. Bush unleashed the agency after Sept. 11, the CIA scored some victories, like drone attacks on jihadists, but also became embroiled in scandals over torture and hyped intelligence on WMD in Iraq.
Great powers need good intelligence services. Spycraft has been a useful tool for centuries, and covert action—from disinformation to targeted killings—can be necessary, if sometimes distasteful or morally questionable. Certainly, President Obama’s order to kill Bin Laden (a joint production between the Navy SEALs and the CIA) was a necessary deed. But the CIA is not a magic wand, as presidents keep discovering to their dismay. (Smart intelligence officials do not pretend otherwise; they know the limits and risks of their business.)
Iran is familiar territory to the CIA, ever since a CIA case officer named Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Teddy) roused an angry mob and installed the shah. The agency has pulled off some impressive operations—such as the 1980 hostage rescue portrayed in the new film Argo. But it also failed to adequately warn of the Iranian Revolution, and it helped enable the shah’s secret police to suppress the Iranian people.
In the past few years, U.S. intelligence has been working closely with Israel to put bugs into Iranian computers and stir up dissent against the mullahs (and someone has been killing Iranian nuclear scientists). Expect more of the same in the months ahead. It's highly likely that the National Security Agency is already waging cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear program. It’s also possible the CIA could relive its 1953 success and foment an overthrow of the regime. That does not mean, however, that Iran’s new leaders would give up on the bomb. The moderates are said to want one too.
Covert action can seem like a quick, cheap, deniable way to get hard jobs done. No wonder presidents have reached for it in the past. But before unleashing the CIA, the next president should think of Ike—and not be surprised if covert action produces mixed results, or backfires.