SpyCast 12.20.22
Ep 569 | 12.20.22

“The Third Option” – US Covert Action with Loch Johnson (Part 1 of 2)

Show Notes


Loch Johnson (Website, LinkedIn) joins Andrew (TwitterLinkedIn) to discuss covert action aka “The Third Option.” He is the author of over 30 books on intelligence.

What You’ll Learn


  • What is covert action
  • Four types of covert action
  • Foreign policy options: “War Power,” “Treaty Power,” and “Spy Power.” 
  • Examples of CA: Guatemala (1954), Indochina (1965), Afghanistan (2001), Iran (2020)


  • Accountability
  • The value of learning from past mistakes 

And much, much more …

Episode Notes

There is perhaps no better guest to join Andrew in this week’s exploration of covert action than Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia Loch Johnson. Loch’s latest book, The Third Option: Covert Action and American Foreign Policy, examines the history of the complicated and sometimes controversial usage of covert action by the U.S. international affairs. 

Loch’s decades-long career in foreign policy and intelligence has brought him to the forefront of some of the most seminal moments within US intelligence reform: he served as special assistant to the chair of the Church Committee, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence Oversight, and worked directly with the chair of the Aspin-Brown Commission.

In this two-part episode of SpyCast, Andrew and Loch unpack what makes a covert action operation successful, and how we can learn from intelligence failures and past mistakes. 


How many people have a society named after them? Loch does

Quote of the Week

"History doesn't like to be shaped, it has a power all of its own, but we try to shape it at least at the margins, and we do that through covert action, sometimes called the third option…and it really comes in four packages. Package number one is propaganda… And then comes political covert actions…Thirdly is economic covert action…And then fourthly, and most dramatically, are paramilitary operations. These are war-like activities." – Loch Johnson.



*Featured Resource* 

  • The Third Option, L. Johnson (Oxford, 2022) 

*Beginner Resources*




  • A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA and Poland, S. Jones (W.W. Norton, 2018)
  • The Church Committee Confronts America's Spy Agencies, L. Johnson (UP of Kentucky, 2015)
  • The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and the Bay of Pigs, J. Rasenberger (Scribner, 2012)
  • Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency, W. Daugherty (UP of Kentucky, 2006)
  • Covert Action, G. Treverton (1987)



Primary Sources 

*Wildcard Resource*

  • A 90s cartoon, evil beings threaten humanity, only the Wild C.A.T.s can save them: i.e., Covert Action Teams!
  • “Covert action” as a concept has become part of the entertainment industry