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Covert vs. Clandestine: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on January 25, 2024
Covert refers to actions that are hidden or concealed, whereas clandestine emphasizes the secrecy of the operation itself to prevent discovery or disruption.

Key Differences

Covert activities are those carried out with an emphasis on concealment, hiding the action itself or the identity of the participants. Clandestine activities, however, focus more on the secrecy of the operation, ensuring it goes unnoticed to avoid interference.
Covert operations can be known by a select group but still remain hidden from the public or specific targets. Clandestine operations are characterized by their total secrecy, often unknown even to those within the same organization or group.
The term 'covert' implies the use of disguise or cover to conceal the action or the individual. In contrast, 'clandestine' suggests a deeper level of secrecy, often involving planning and execution without leaving any trace.
Covert actions are often employed in military and espionage contexts where hiding the operation's existence or the identity of operatives is crucial. Clandestine activities, on the other hand, are typically used in contexts where the total concealment of the activity is necessary for its success.
In practical terms, a covert operation might involve undercover agents whose identities are hidden, but the existence of the operation may be known to some. Clandestine activities might include secret meetings or communications that are completely hidden from all but the direct participants.

Comparison Chart


Concealing action or identity
Secrecy of the operation itself

Knowledge among Participants

Known to a select group but hidden
Often unknown even within the same organization


Use of disguise or cover
Planning and execution without leaving traces

Common Usage

Military, espionage with identity concealment
Operations requiring total secrecy

Practical Example

Undercover agents
Secret meetings or communications

Covert and Clandestine Definitions


Hidden or disguised actions.
The spy conducted covert surveillance on the target.


Kept secret or hidden, especially for illicit purposes.
Clandestine activities were suspected in the abandoned building.


Secretive, not openly acknowledged.
They used covert methods to gather information.


Characterized by, done in, or executed with secrecy.
The agents were involved in a clandestine operation.


Operating in hidden or unknown capacities.
Covert agents were deployed to gather intelligence.


Conducted with secrecy and concealment.
They held a clandestine meeting in an undisclosed location.


Actions that are not publicly known or visible.
The government carried out covert negotiations.


Secret, concealed from view or knowledge of outsiders.
A clandestine group was planning the event.


Concealed to prevent disclosure.
A covert operation was underway to infiltrate the organization.


Activities done in secret to avoid detection.
Clandestine communications were exchanged between the spies.


Not openly practiced, avowed, engaged in, accumulated, or shown
Covert military operations.
Covert funding for the rebels.


Kept or done in secret, often to conceal an illicit or improper purpose.


Covered or covered over; sheltered.


Done or kept in secret, sometimes to conceal an illicit or improper purpose.
Clandestine military operations


Not recognized as a regular member.


Conducted with secrecy; withdrawn from public notice, usually for an evil purpose; kept secret; hidden; private; underhand; as, a clandestine marriage.


Conducted with or marked by hidden aims or methods;
Clandestine intelligence operations
Cloak-and-dagger activities behind enemy lines
Hole-and-corner intrigue
Secret missions
A secret agent
Secret sales of arms
Surreptitious mobilization of troops
An undercover investigation
Underground resistance


Can a government operation be both covert and clandestine?

Yes, it can be both hidden (covert) and carried out with complete secrecy (clandestine).

What does 'covert' mean in intelligence operations?

It refers to operations carried out secretly, often with concealed identities.

Are clandestine activities always illegal?

Not necessarily, but they are often associated with illicit or unauthorized actions.

Why are clandestine operations important in espionage?

They allow for the gathering of intelligence without alerting the target or enemies.

How do covert operations differ from standard military operations?

Covert operations are hidden and often deniable, unlike regular military operations.

Is covert action the same as undercover?

Yes, undercover work is a type of covert operation.

What is a real-world example of a clandestine activity?

Secret negotiations between countries on sensitive issues.

Are all spies involved in clandestine activities?

Most are, as secrecy is a key aspect of espionage.

Are covert actions always successful?

Not always, as they carry risks of exposure and failure.

How are covert operations planned?

With emphasis on secrecy, deception, and often with contingency plans.

Do clandestine operations involve technology?

Often, they use advanced technology for communication and surveillance.

How do governments justify covert activities?

Usually for national security, intelligence gathering, or diplomatic reasons.

How is information from covert operations handled?

It's typically classified and handled through secure channels.

Do clandestine operations require special training?

Yes, they typically require specialized skills in secrecy and deception.

Is it ethical to carry out clandestine operations?

It depends on the context and purpose; ethical considerations vary widely.

What is the goal of a covert mission?

To achieve objectives without revealing the mission or the identities involved.

Can a covert operation become public?

Yes, if exposed, covert operations can become public knowledge.

Can journalists conduct covert investigations?

Yes, journalists sometimes use covert methods for investigative reporting.

Can ordinary people be involved in clandestine activities?

Rarely, as these activities usually require specific skills and clearance.

Do clandestine operations always involve governments?

Not always, they can also involve corporations, organizations, or individuals.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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