AJPS Author Summary: Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs

Author Summary By William Spaniel and Michael Poznansky

AJPS - FB Posts (5)Is it possible to prevent political leaders from undertaking questionable covert actions? At first blush, the prospects don’t look good. Convincing actors to behave contrary to their narrow self-interest is difficult even in domains characterized by relative transparency. Covert operations are notable for their opacity. Such actions are by their very nature hidden from public scrutiny.

And yet, actors often consent to regulations of secret activities anyway. In the 1970s, for example, Gerald Ford outlawed political assassinations and created an Intelligence Oversight Board to ease whistleblowing. More generally, states routinely sign treaties proscribing activities that are often carried out behind closed doors (e.g., torture). What remains unclear is whether these prohibitions matter given that detection is a prerequisite for punishment.

Our article, “Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs,” provides an answer. We develop a model that captures the incentives executives, whistleblowers, and watchdogs face in the covert sphere. We show that even when executives would otherwise like to pursue covert action, they may, under certain conditions, endogenously adopt institutional reforms to increase the costs of getting caught and promote whistleblowing.

To understand why, consider the following auditing problem. If watchdogs believe that an executive may have undertaken a questionable covert action, they may invest effort to investigate. This taxes the executive’s resources and erodes their political capital—regardless of whether the executive actually did anything. Additionally, the optimal level of watchdog effort implies a risk of revelation. Combined, these two factors may mean the executive is better off committing to inaction than sometimes taking covert action and getting away with it.

But how can the executive make such a commitment credible? This is where the whistleblower comes into play. Even if the watchdog doesn’t exert effort, high costs of punishment for getting caught and a reduction in the barriers to whistleblowing are sufficient to deter the executive from pursuing questionable covert actions. In turn, the executive may prefer circumstances with these high costs and low whistleblowing barriers to cases where he or she would otherwise be tempted to take covert action. We therefore expect the executive to promote institutional reform under these circumstances.

The article illustrates the mechanism by exploring the road to Gerald Ford’s intelligence community reforms in the mid-1970s. From 1947 to roughly 1974, executives enjoyed wide latitude in the covert sphere. There were few penalties stemming from Congress, the media, or the public for getting caught pursuing questionable covert operations. As such, executives displayed no desire to pursue reform. The Watergate scandal, combined with allegations of political assassinations and domestic spying, ended the era of deference. In response, Ford championed reforms to the intelligence community to credibly commit to refraining from engaging in questionable secret activities in the future.

About the Authors: William Spaniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Michael Poznansky is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Their article titled, “Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs “ is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.