Spies, Patriots, and Traitors

No, no I’m not guilty that it took me almost five years to review this book which I got through LibraryThing.

Review: Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War, Kenneth A. Daigler, 2014.Daigler_RGB_72dpi

There seemed to be a bunch of books about intelligence operations conducted by the insurgents of the American Revolution in the last 15 years. Most, though, concentrate on George Washington’s work as America’s first spymaster. Daigler’s book, as a cover blurb by historian Steven Spiry says, is “the most comprehensive book yet on American intelligence activities in the War of Independence.”

Daigler is an ex-CIA case officer and senior manager of intelligence operations. The book came out of a pamphlet he wrote in his CIA days to remind foreign intelligence liaison officers that, while America now has sophisticated photo and electronic intelligence capabilities, it also has a history in more traditional spycraft. Daigler brings not only an historian’s eye to the book, but his own professional evaluation of the operations in this book.

It’s also a readable book. This is an academic book that rewards reading cover to cover. Daigler doesn’t repeat himself much chapter to chapter unlike, say, the authors you find in an Oxford University Press books. He fully sources his book, presents his story roughly chronologically, and has some wry asides on the eternal truths of intelligence operations. That includes the intimate relationship between agent and case officer – the need to provide specific instructions and sometimes sooth frayed nerves, express the appreciation of the consumer of the intelligence, and bolster moral so that the agent will continue to put his life at risk for more information.

Daigler focuses on four key players in American intelligence in the years before and during the war: Samuel Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Nathaniel Greene.

Today Samuel Adams is the “Brewer and Patriot” on bottles of beer. But the cousin of the more famous John Adams was so key to organizing — through united front groups, subversion, “street action”, and propaganda – over ten years the eventual open break with England that Daigler echoes another historian in calling Adams “the Lenin of the American Revolution”. Adams, the “guiding hand” behind the Sons of Liberty, did not have much in the way of operational security though. They simply relied on public oaths that none of them were working for the British government.

Another group that didn’t have much in the way of operational security was Benjamin Franklin’s commission to France which started operation in 1776 and went through the end of the war. It was penetrated by British agents and constantly spied on. However, it still managed to arrange covert French aid to the revolution, set up shell companies to funnel money and arms from France to the rebels with various degrees of deniability, and dispose of property seized by American privateers. It was even involved in a sabotage attempt – mostly unsuccessful – on the British naval facilities at Portsmouth.

John Jay, in his role as the head of the Committee and First Commission for Detecting Conspiracies in the colony of New York, was very mindful of security. The Revolutionary War was not, until it was won, a revolutionary war. It was just a civil war with very mixed loyalties among the population. The closest approximation to it in the rest of American history would be Missouri in the Civil War. There are several incidents in this book where people mistake the affiliation of the people they meet.

Jay, the man who would become the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, had to figure out who was really a British spy and who was just on the receiving end of accusations motivated by political, economic, and personal grudges. Jay’s involvement with counterintelligence led him to be the only writer of the Federalist Papers to mention, in Number 64, the necessity of the executive branch of the proposed federal government being able to conduct espionage in secret. It was Jay’s agent, Enoch Crosby, who provided some of the details for Jay’s neighbor James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy, the first American espionage novel.

Nathaniel Greene, in the southern sector of the rebellion, was another cunning and able manager of espionage operations. Daigler compares his strategy to Mao Tsetung in successfully parrying, aided by intelligence, a larger and better funded force.

George Washington is the chief figure here, America’s first spymaster. He was also, uniquely in American history, not only America’s first director of intelligence but also simultaneously its chief consumer of intelligence. His involvement with intelligence work began even prior to his involvement in the French and Indian War when, in 1753, he went on a reconnaissance mission into the Ohio Territory. Washington showed an early aptitude for “elicitation”, manipulating conversation with a target so that they reveal more information than they intend.

He made mistakes in his intelligence work. Nathan Hale’s famous (but only starting in 1824) mission was one example. It was a poorly planned mission, and Hale was a bad choice for a spy. At other times, early in the war, Washington was distracted by the duties of military command and didn’t spend enough time managing intelligence operations. At other times, he was impatient for the famous Culper spy ring in British occupied New York City to supply him information and security lapses resulted.

Overall, though, Washington was, in Daigler’s professional estimation, a “talented, innovative, aggressive, and quite competent intelligence manager”. His masterpiece was a deception operation of more than a year in length to convince the British he meant to force them out of New York City. Some traditional histories, citing Washington’s public diaries, say Washington was talked out of attacking New York City by his French allies. They thought the city too well fortified. In actuality, Washington always intended to trap Cornwallis in the south, and his deception operation successfully convinced the British to not transfer reinforcements from New York City to the southern British force. Yorktown was the result. Washington’s operational security was very good and very few of his own men knew his intentions. It was a complex ruse involving double agents and false information, and it, more than anything, shows Washington’s skill in intelligence work.

And, of course, we also get a chapter on Benedict Arnold whose motivations of ego Daigler likens to modern traitor Robert Hanssen.

There are bits of little known history here. We learn, though we aren’t surprised, by Benjamin Franklin’s skill in black propaganda — forging a whole Boston newspaper and creating tales of British atrocities. At the same time, his illegitimate son, William, was conducting counterintelligence work for the British in the colonies. There’s a brief account of America’s first overseas paramilitary operation, a raid on Bermuda to seize British gunpowder.

Daigler stumbles a little bit in his chapter on blacks in American intelligence operations in the Revolutionary War. He recounts the tales of known black militia men from the beginning of the war. However, since few whites, working strictly in the context of the battlefield, get such mentions, it seems like affirmative action history. However, throughout the book, he does mention blacks who aided American intelligence. Some we know the names of since they were granted freedom for their efforts. But many we don’t since they were working for their master. Many were effective for two reasons: little thought was given to the presence because they were often, though not always, slaves and many compensated for their lack of literacy by having excellent memories.

But the names of many white agents aren’t known either. Some didn’t want any recognition. In the post-war world of a new nation, it wasn’t always wise to have your former loyalties and lies made public. Also, Washington and Greene were very security conscious and simply didn’t keep a lot of incriminating records.

Daigler has taken his material from not only primary government documents but also records found in local historical societies. Sometimes, using his knowledge of the constant verities of intelligence work, he evaluates the plausibility of family stories handed down and recorded.

Ancillary material includes a chronology, pictures of principal characters but no maps, and a glossary of tradecraft terms which even included a few new to me.

Clear, readable, and concise, Daigler’s book is most definitely recommended for those interested in the American Revolution or espionage history.


More reviews of espionage histories are indexed on the espionage page.

2 thoughts on “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors

  1. Jenesh Lal Shrestha April 22, 2019 / 5:33 am

    Wonderful review! I like how you are able to express your opinion so effectively.
    I love your work so much that I have subscribed to your blog. 🙂

    • marzaat April 22, 2019 / 11:55 am

      Thanks for stopping by and reading this.

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