- - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SPIES, PATRIOTS, AND TRAITORS: AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE IN THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR
By Kenneth A. Daigler
Georgetown University Press, $29.95, 317 pages

During one phase of his career as a senior case officer in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, Kenneth Daigler was tasked with creating a suite of conference rooms for use by foreign intelligence liaison visitors to the headquarters complex. Many of these visitors, whose country services dated back centuries, tended to look at CIA as “new to the game.” They had doubts “about our experience level and practice understanding of how intelligence activities were conducted.”

With an academic background in history, and CIA archives on the history of American intelligence at his disposal, Mr. Daigler knew better. He produced pamphlets on intelligence during the American Revolution (available to the public on the CIA home page) to enlighten the visiting officers.

Now he has expanded that work into a delight of a read, drawing on his own field experience to present an overview of intelligence during the era. Even those familiar with the broad outlines of his story will find professional insights beyond the knowledge of academic historians.

George Washington rightly comes across as the “father of American intelligence.” He wrote a friend, “There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, & nothing that requires greater pains to obtain.” Mr. Daigler sees Washington’s guiding hand in many of the espionage coups of the revolution, notably the Culper Ring in and around New York City.

As a student of propaganda and psychological warfare, I found especially compelling Mr. Daigler’s treatment of the political action campaign against the British authorities. As he points out, the insurgency against the British “had the active support of only about a third of the population.” Many of these persons favored “freedom” only in the sense of the ability to pursue their economic interests without British interference.

However, activists such as Sam Adams wanted far more; namely, outright political emancipation from London. The chosen modus was a “united front” campaign tailored to draw a mass following. The first requirement, he writes, “is a broad political objective, one that has current popular appeal and can also be described in flexible terms in order to engage an audience as large as possible.” The radical shrewdly used the concept of economic freedom to appeal to the general public.

In later centuries, skilled propagandists in communist regimes such as the USSR, Red China and Castro’s Cuba made effective use of united fronts. But none of these powers “engineered a greater success” than what Adams and colleagues achieved between 1767 and 1775. Mr. Daigler notes that one prominent Revolutionary period historian, Joseph J. Ellis, has referred to Adams as “the Lenin of the American Revolution.”

When strong measures were needed to make a point, Adams and friends did not hesitate to stir up street mobs for such chores as attacks on British officials enforcing the detested Stamp Acts. (An unfortunate side effect was street gangs and criminals “sheltering their activities under the guise of popular resistance to British authority.)

Mr. Daigler singles out the multitalented John Jay — best known as the first chief justice of the United States and as the creator of the first American counterintelligence effort. With loyalties flexible throughout the colonies, Washington recognized the need to be watchful for British sympathizers. Calling spies “the one evil I dread,” he expressed the wish that “a dozen or more of honest, sensible and diligent men were employed in order to question, cross-question, etc., all such persons as are unknown, and cannot give an account of themselves in a straight and satisfactory line.”

Given that a person’s honor was an assumed factor during the period, and the Colonialists’ disdain for government intrusion, a broad counterintelligence effort would have been a difficult sale. Nonetheless, New York state did create “The Committee and First Commission for Detecting Conspiracies,” headed by Jay. One foiled plot was a plan to seize control of New York City by sabotaging military defenses and recruiting Washington’s personal bodyguards to either capture or kill the general, crippling the army’s command structure and perhaps even forcing its surrender. Jay’s officers exposed the scheme and arrested many of the ring’s members, one of whom was executed.

In another operation, Jay organized a clandestine group of operators who feigned sympathy for the British and thus were able to penetrate their inner circles. The goal was to arrest the individuals, “often by developing some ploy to assure assembly at a given point,” then to give evidence in court. As Mr. Daigler writes, “To counterintelligence officials, this procedure of ‘identify, penetrate and neutralize’ represents the basic elements of the profession to the current day. Nonetheless, there were grievous counterintelligence failures, notably the defection of Benedict Arnold.”

Mr. Daigler dangles interesting tradecraft tidbits he learned over the years. Consider “elicitation,” the art of manipulating a conversation to encourage a source to provide more facts than intended. This process, he writes, “is often aided by food and drink. Being able to hold one’s alcohol in these situations is paramount. More than a few intelligence officers have ended up giving their adversaries more information than they obtained .”

Benjamin Franklin, serving on the American commission in Paris, was aware the British had targeted his activities. “However,” Mr. Daigler writes, “he also believed that he was smart enough not to allow the spies to get the better of him. Intelligence officers love that attitude.”

Mr. Daigler concludes that American intelligence activities “were a significant factor in defeating the British — both on the political level (i.e., persuading France to give covert assistance) and on the battlefield (maneuvering around a superior enemy force and taking advantage of its mistakes).

Written by a true expert, Mr. Daigler’s book is perhaps the best you are going to find on the birth of American intelligence. Five cloaks, five daggers.

Joseph Goulden’s 1982 book, “Korea: The Untold Story of the War,” was published in a Chinese-language edition this summer by Beijing Xiron Books.

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