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Covert action: An essential element of statecraft

John Sano Reagan Intelligence Lecture April 2015 444x718The Institute of World Politics, since its early origins, has offered courses that point to the importance of covert action and its broad functionality within the intelligence community (IC). However, and to the great benefit of our Strategic Intelligence program, Professor John Sano’s new course (IWP 678) Covert Action and National Security is the first of its kind to tackle the topic head on.

IWP sat down with Professor John Sano, a 28-year CIA veteran and former Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service, to ask him a few questions. What we found was a man who enjoys teaching Sunday school, stays current on all issues within the IC field, and capably brings practical insight and perspective to all matters intelligence in his 6:30-9:30 Tuesday/Thursday class.

Very few people view covert action as an element of statecraft or foreign policy, but as discussed in his class, it is the “third option.” Prof. Sano believes it is a misunderstood and an often-overlooked aspect, especially as espionage and covert action are often regarded in the same way. While there are many similarities, covert action does not exist without espionage, and the two follow different patterns of activity.

Prof. Sano has always had an interest in teaching. He taught previously as a high school teacher for one year in between graduate programs, and was even a Sunday school teacher for a time. He enjoys teaching and believes it is a way to give back to the community. He enjoys the interaction with students, particularly at the graduate level because they want to be there: “It’s not a requirement; it’s a choice on their part.” He enjoys discussing issues at length with these students.

Professor Sano structures his course by staying as current as possible on things that are occurring within the intelligence community. He believes that the underlying themes and core values  whether for covert action, human intelligence, or anything in the intelligence field — remain fairly constant, while the practical application of covert action can change over time. Professor Sano uses past instances of covert action as a historical basis for class discussions, but focuses on the practical application of covert action in the present day.

Based on his experiences and some of the discussions he has had with former Administrations and Members of Congress, Professor Sano believes there were a lot of opportunities missed where covert action could have played an integral role. He believes that students who understand the fundamentals of covert action — how it is used, when it can be used, and, equally importantly, when it should not be used — can help rebuild this capability that is fairly unique to the United States government.