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.”
His commitment to espionage, however, was a pragmatic one. While Washington understood that success in the struggle between nations required the use of covert operations — and the employment of individuals who were ethically challenged — he was not particularly enamored with these tactics or with the types of individuals employed in these endeavors. In fact, Washington bemoaned in 1779 the “ambiguous characters” that were essential to conducting covert warfare, and warned his intelligence officers to constantly be on the lookout for double agents. Nonetheless, Washington believed that these operatives and their underhanded methods were necessary to defend American interests.
If he were alive today — and enmeshed in the debate over domestic spying — Washington would likely clash with the modern civil libertarian view of the sanctity of private communications. In other words, he would disagree with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s, or Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s moral outrage regarding government monitoring of private communications, despite their claims to the contrary. Covert mail opening, he believed, was an important national security tool and instructed his agents to “contrive a means of opening them [letters] without breaking the seals, take copies of the contents, and then let them go on.” This type of intelligence gathering would provide “innumerable” advantages to the American cause, Washington argued. He was also comfortable using clergymen as intelligence agents. In 1778, he urged a chaplain to coax vital intelligence out of two captured British spies facing execution. Washington instructed the chaplain to exploit the fact that these men would want to get right with God, and by default with George Washington, before departing for the pearly gates.
There was an element of ruthlessness in Washington’s approach to clandestine operations. In March 1782, he approved plans for a political kidnapping designed to grab the heir to the British throne while he was visiting New York City. Washington created a special team whose purpose was to kidnap the future King William IV, planning to hold him for ransom in exchange for the traitorous Benedict Arnold or use him as a bargaining chip to secure the release of American prisoners of war. The mission was called off after British intelligence was told of the plan and doubled the prince’s guard, but if Washington had had his way, a future king of England would have been snatched off the streets and kept in bondage.
His practice of deception wasn’t confined to the enemy. One of Washington’s greatest triumphs during the war, the Yorktown campaign of 1781, succeeded in part due to his skill at deception. The general decided that, in order to convince the British that he intended to attack New York City instead of marching south, he needed to mislead not only the British military but American officials as well. He so wanted American authorities to believe that “New York was the destined place of attack, he would later recall to Noah Webster in 1788, that he continued to draw recruits from the Mid-Atlantic States who might be less inclined to enlist for a southern campaign. Washington’s domestic disinformation campaign extended to his own army as well. As he put it to Webster, “pains [were] taken to deceive our own army; for I had always conceived, when the imposition did not completely take place at home, it could never sufficiently succeed abroad.”
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