Dirty tricks are clandestine activities carried out by a covert-action group to discredit, destabilize, or eliminate an opposing regime, one of its agencies or departments, or an individual. A type of covert operation, dirty tricks include everything from the spreading of false rumors to sabotage, overthrow, and assassination.
American dirty tricks. The history of dirty tricks practiced by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a long one. Among the most significant examples in this extensive catalogue are the many attempts to undermine or neutralize Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. These ranged from large-scale conspiracies such as assassination plans and the Bay of Pigs invasion to bizarre brainstorms at the fringes of practicability. An example of the latter was a plot to introduce a substance that would cause Castro's famous beard to fall off, thus presumably eliminating his machismo and thus his credibility with the Cuban people.
Castro was far from the only foreign leader targeted by CIA dirty tricks. Another example was Chilean president Salvador Allende, who steered his nation toward Marxism in the early 1970s. The CIA bribed members of the Chilean Congress, and employed a number of means to foment unrest in Chile. Evidence gathered by the Church Committee of the U.S. Senate indicates that the CIA may have been behind the truckers' strike of 1972–73 that helped spawn the coup in which Allende lost his life and General Augusto Pinochet took power.
Soviet dirty tricks. Though CIA dirty tricks, such as those that were revealed in the course of the Iran-Contra hearings in the late 1980s, are legendary for their cunning, the United States is hardly the only nation that has employed dirty tricks in its covert operations. Another example is the Soviet Union, whose KGB operatives were past masters at such tactics ranging from disinformation to assassination. The Soviets, of course, had the advantage—at least, in countries where their system gained control—of being able to suppress all undesirable information. Yet, even before the fall of the Soviet empire, extensive information on Soviet activities was available.
To cite one example among many of those noted by British journalist Chapman Pincher in The Secret Offensive (1985) the Soviets sought to strike back at Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for his increasingly pro-American acts by printing leaflets attacking him as a U.S. puppet. These tracts, which the CIA traced to the Soviets, but which were purportedly issued by Muslim fundamentalists, helped fan the flames of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had Sadat assassinated in 1981. The KGB also provided the Weathermen, a U.S. radical group in the 1960s, with money and other forms of assistance through Cuban intermediaries, and Soviet support for terrorist groups attempting to destabilize western Europe during the 1970s and 1980s is well-documented.
█ FURTHER READING:
Bennett, Richard M. Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets. London: Virgin Books, 2002.
Carney, John T., and Benjamin F. Schemmer. No Room for Error: The Covert Operations of America's Special Tactics Units from Iran to Afghanistan. New York: Ballantine, 2002.
Pincher, Chapman. The Secret Offensive. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, third edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.