In This Review

Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency
Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency
By Stephen F. Knott
Oxford University Press, 1996, 241 pp

This is really two books, the first an account based largely on secondary sources and published papers of covert action by American presidents from Washington through Lincoln, the second a polemic against congressional micromanagement (or, should one view it differently, close supervision) of the intelligence community. The first is an interesting if fairly conventional account of the actions of American spies, agents of influence, and covert operators working under the direction of senior political leaders, but the second is a rehash of old debates about congressional oversight of clandestine operations, in which the author takes an unambiguously hostile view of legislative interference, as he sees it, in executive activity. This preoccupation with the controversies of the present mars the book's treatment of the past. Covert action in 1990 is not quite what it was in 1850, and the author sometimes makes too much of the accomplishments of spies. Lincoln's campaign for the hearts and minds of North American and European populations was far more an overt than a covert effort, yet one might not think so after reading this account. Still, particularly in its first six chapters, the student of American intelligence will find a useful account of successful cloak-and-dagger work that predates this century.