Rachel Myrick

Department of Political Science

Secrecy and Covert Action in U.S. Foreign Policymaking


Countries use a wide variety of policy instruments in order to gain leverage in interstate disputes. One way in which these instruments vary is the extent to which they are transparent to the public. For instance, in recent years, the United States has engaged in drone strikes and other covert operations in Yemen while simultaneously leading a multinational coalition to conduct airstrikes in Syria. The objective of this project is to what extent norms of transparent foreign policymaking matter to democratic publics.

Survey experiments provide a unique opportunity to disentangle the relative weight of normative beliefs about a particular policy instrument from the anticipated material costs and benefits of the instrument. In a first experiment, I recover attitudes towards a covert operation by designing an experiment that holds the circumstances, cost, and outcomes of a conflict constant and manipulates whether foreign involvement was public or kept secret. I demonstrate that contrary to foundational beliefs about foreign policymaking, respondents only have a weak preference for transparency; the effect becomes insignificant once respondents are provided with information about policy outcomes. In a second experiment, I unpack the “ends” and “means” tradeoff in policymaking by exploring whether there are any conditions under which covert action is unacceptable to the public, regardless of policy outcomes.