With all due respect to early-American hagiographer Parson Weems, George Washington knew how to tell a lie. In fact, he told a lot of them. Moreover, talent for deception was shared by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom, to borrow from former Vice President Dick Cheney, worked the “dark side.” And though these Founding Fathers’ knack for the shadows may cut against the image of modern-day saints that has grown up around them, it is difficult to see the American Revolution succeeding without it.
In popular history, clandestine operations, and their control by the executive, are a cancerous growth that began in the 20th century with the so-called “imperial presidency” and the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. This is fiction. Unfortunately, this fairy tale account of American history is gospel in far too many quarters. It was accepted as fact by the Church Committee in the 1970s, resurrected again in the majority report of the Iran-Contra Committee in 1987, and now finds renewed life on the libertarian right. As Jefferson noted, for the founders, the “laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger,” overrode traditional standards of conduct or any written law. Enlisting their legacy in the cause of restricting or banning these operations can only be achieved by either distorting or ignoring their repeated use of underhanded means.
Facing off against the greatest superpower of his day, Washington understood that when fighting a more formidable foe, deception acts as a force multiplier. Though Washington’s commitment to espionage may have been written out of the laudatory histories that established America’s first president as the “Jupiter conservator,” striking a demigod pose, the work of spying was never far from his mind.
One of Washington’s first acts upon taking command of the Continental Army in 1775 was to hire a spy to go behind the enemy lines and report on British activities in Boston. He devoted a considerable amount of energy to his role as intelligence chief, including using personal funds to pay for clandestine operations. These operations were essential to winning the war, he believed, and so sensitive, that he withheld information about them from the Continental Congress. As he bluntly noted in 1777, “there are some secrets, on the keeping of which so, depends, oftentimes, the salvation of an Army: secrets which cannot, at least ought not to, be entrusted to paper; nay, which none but the Commander-in-Chief at the time, should be acquainted with.”