Foreign policy in peacetime and command decision in war have always been driven by intelligence, and yet this subject has often been overlooked in standard histories. Honorable Treachery fills in these details, dramatically recounting every important intelligence operation since our nation’s birth. These include how in 1795 President Washington mounted a covert operation to ransom American hostages in the Middle East; how in 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s plans for an invasion of the United States were scuppered by the director of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence; and how President Woodrow Wilson created a secret agency called the Inquiry to compile intelligence for the peace negotiations at the end of World War I. Honorable Treachery puts America’s use of covert intelligence into a broader historical context, and is sure to appeal to anyone interested in American history and the secret workings of our country.
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About the Author
George O’Toole (1937-2001) worked for the CIA from 1966 to 1969. He was the author of several award-winning books, including the Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage; Honorable Treachery, The Spanish War, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and the novels The Cosgrove Report and An Agent on the Other Side.
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Liberty Boys and British Moles
It is a commonplace that the struggle for American independence, which began at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, had as one of its root causes the Stamp Act, imposed on the American colonies by Parliament ten years earlier. Less familiar, however, is the fact that this same act led to the creation of the first American intelligence service. And it is virtually unknown that the shots fired that April morning on Lexington Green marked the culmination of a secret war between British and American intelligence.
The ultimate ancestor of all American intelligence services is the Sons of Liberty, a federation of dissident political groups formed in colonial America in 1765 in reaction to the Stamp Act. The act, which required the colonists to use tax stamps on virtually all printed matter, had the effect of unifying colonial resistance to British rule; earlier revenue measures had fallen more heavily on some colonies than on others, but the Stamp Act burdened all more or less equally. The Sons of Liberty provided the means for this unification.
The organization took its name from Major Isaac Barré's impassioned speech against the passage of the act in the House of Commons. In Boston the fiery Samuel Adams transformed the Caucus Club, a political club that had been in existence for a half century, into the Sons of Liberty. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Fireman's Association — a local volunteer fire company — followed suit, as did the Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company of Baltimore and the Heart and Hand Fire Company in Philadelphia. Within a short time similar organizations in each of the thirteen colonies had adopted the name and joined the network of secret political groups to resist enforcement of the Stamp Act.
The Sons of Liberty, or the Liberty Boys, as they were sometimes called, employed a variety of tactics, most of them violent and illegal — for example, rioting, seizing and destroying the hated stamps, and attacking the appointed stamp agents. The New York chapter of the Liberty Boys entered into a mutual defense pact with its Connecticut and New Jersey counterparts, providing for military resistance should the British government attempt to enforce the act with troops. In North and South Carolina local Liberty Boys actually stormed British forts and garrisons but met no armed resistance.
Within a year the Sons of Liberty had achieved its immediate goal: Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. The federation did not go out of existence, however, but continued to operate as a Patriot underground from New Hampshire to South Carolina, but especially in Boston and New York.
In 1772 the Patriots began to establish Committees of Correspondence, a more formal structure for the coordination of resistance to Britain's colonial policies. While the Liberty Boys were composed largely of artisans and tradesmen of the colonial towns and cities, the committees were organized in the countryside as well, thus uniting rural Patriots with their urban brethren. In addition to disseminating anti-British propaganda, the committees sometimes exercised judicial, legislative, and executive functions, becoming in effect a Patriot shadow government or underground. The intercolonial communication network established by the committees was instrumental in the convening of the First Continental Congress in 1774.
The committees did not completely replace the Sons of Liberty, however, although the membership of the two groups overlapped to a great extent. The Liberty Boys continued to exist as a less formal organization in parallel with the Committees of Correspondence until the outbreak of the war made them superfluous.
In the terms of modern revolutionary warfare, the Sons of Liberty and the related committees comprised the insurgent infrastructure of Patriot America in the decade before the Revolution; they were a cadre of dedicated revolutionaries who propagandized against British rule, indoctrinated the uncommitted, organized the Whigs, terrorized the Tories, procured arms and munitions, trained farmers and tradesmen in the military arts, and generally prepared for an armed conflict with the British government. And this, of course, included espionage.
In Boston some thirty members of the Sons of Liberty met regularly at the Green Dragon Tavern on Union Street during the winter of 1774 — 75. They had constituted themselves as a committee for the purpose of watching the activities of the British troops and the Tories in and around the city. Boston had been occupied by British troops under the command of General Thomas Gage since late in 1768, following the sporadic incidents of mob violence and other public disorders in that city in resistance to the Townshend Acts, yet another of the onerous taxation measures Parliament imposed on the Americans. Clashes between soldiers and civilians heightened tensions — in the so-called Boston Massacre of March 1770, troops fired into an angry mob, killing five — and the British responded by further strengthening the Boston garrison. By the beginning of 1775, there were some forty-five hundred British troops in the city. Meanwhile, the Patriot underground had raised and drilled militia units throughout Massachusetts and continued to accumulate arms, ammunition, and other military stores at secret depots in the countryside.
General Gage, who was by then both commander in chief of British forces in the colonies and colonial governor of Massachusetts, had a network of informers among the Patriots and knew in great detail of some of their military preparations. On September 1, 1774, his troops raided a supposedly secret military depot the Patriots had established at Cambridge, the existence of which he had learned from one of his agents the previous March. This raid probably was the reason the surveillance committee of the Sons of Liberty began meeting at the Green Dragon in the fall of 1774; members of the group regularly patrolled the streets of Boston during the night to observe British military preparations and other activity. Their purpose was to obtain early warning of any further British raids into the countryside so that the military stores could be moved to new hiding places before the troops arrived. In December 1774 they learned that Gage planned to reinforce a British arsenal at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with two regiments, intelligence that prompted the Sons of Liberty to raid the installation before the fresh troops arrived and carry off about a hundred barrels of gunpowder and several cannons.
The leadership of the Mechanics, as the Green Dragon group is now some times called, consisted of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Benjamin Church, and one or two others. Warren, a prominent Boston physician and later a major general who was killed at Bunker Hill, may have been the chairman of the group. Church, another physician and political leader, was also a member of the Boston Committees of Correspondence and of Safety, the latter a body responsible for control of the militia. A minor poet as well as a medical man, he was a prolific author of Patriot propaganda and was famous for the oration he delivered in commemoration of the Boston Massacre on the third anniversary of that event.
Dr. Church was also one of General Gage's informers, a British mole, in modern espionage jargon, and probably the most valuable spy the British had in America at that time.
Benjamin Church, a native of Newport, Rhode Island, graduated from Harvard in 1754 and then went to England to study medicine at the London Medical College. He returned to America with an English wife and began practicing medicine in Raynham, Massachusetts, in about 1768. Apparently, he acquired a taste for high living while in London, and he managed to continue to indulge it in colonial Boston, at least to the extent of keeping a mistress and building an elaborate summer home. The doctor's free-spending habits outstripped his ability to produce income through his medical practice. It was probably for this reason that he took up a second and older profession in exchange for British gold.
One member of the Mechanics realized the group had been penetrated. Paul Revere, the well-known Boston silversmith and a member of the surveillance committee, had his own penetration agent within the ranks of the Tories and had learned from him (his name is lost to history) in November 1774 that the proceedings of at least one meeting at the Green Dragon were known to General Gage within twenty-four hours thereafter. But Revere did not learn the identity of the traitor.
"We did not then distrust Dr. Church," he later remembered, "but supposed it must be some one among us."
Unable to devise any other security measure, each of the Mechanics would swear on a Bible at every meeting at the Green Dragon that he would not divulge the group's secrets. While this was certainly a laudable measure, it was scarcely the whole of counterintelligence.
Ironically, Dr. Church may have done an unintended service for the Patriots in spying on them for Gage. According to his reports to the British commander in chief, the Patriot cause was losing support. This, and the effectiveness of Gage's espionage network in keeping track of the Patriots' preparations, may have caused the general to become complacent.
On April 14, 1775, Gage received secret instructions from Lord Dartmouth, secretary for the colonies, urging him to take some forceful action against the Patriots, such as arresting the Patriot leaders, before the situation in Massachusetts reached "a riper state of Rebellion." Gage ignored the instruction and decided instead to content himself with seizing the Patriot military stores that he knew — from the reports of Dr. Church and his other agents — to be located in the town of Concord. Indeed, Gage's intelligence was so complete he knew the precise location of the military stores within the town.
Preparations for the operation began on April 15, when the troops were relieved of their regular duties and a large number of boats were assembled during the night for use in ferrying men and materials across the Charles River on the first leg of the march from Boston to Concord.
The Mechanics had not failed to notice these preparations, of course, and on April 16 Dr. Warren sent Revere to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the object of the coming expedition might be their arrest. On his way back to Boston, Revere stopped in Charlestown and arranged a visual signaling system with Colonel William Conant, a prominent local citizen and a member of the Sons of Liberty: when the British began to launch their expedition, Revere would signal by means of lanterns hung in the steeple of Boston's Old North Church, which was visible from Charlestown; one lantern would mean the British were marching across Boston Neck, the narrow strip of land to the west of Boston; two lanterns would mean they were coming by water — that is, across the harbor to Charlestown.
This, then, is the little-known intelligence and espionage background of the events that marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The stories of Paul Revere's midnight ride and the Battles of Lexington and Concord are too familiar to need retelling here, but there is a postscript to the account of Dr. Church's treachery.
Dr. Church's espionage continued undetected in the wake of Lexington and Concord. On April 21, after the Patriots had driven the British troops back into Boston, he passed through the Patriot lines at Cambridge into the besieged city to meet with Gage, probably to work out arrangements for future secret service. He had disarmed Patriot suspicion by boldly declaring at a meeting of the Committee of Safety that he was going to undertake a risky trip into the city on behalf of the committee in order to obtain needed medicines. He was back in Cambridge in a few days with a harrowing tale of having been arrested, taken before Gage, and then held for several days for investigation.
On May 13 Dr. Church wrote to Gage that the Patriots planned to reinforce Bunker Hill, a strategic point on the Charlestown peninsula, which was then occupied by neither the British nor the Patriots. This was a month before the Patriots actually fortified Breed's Hill on the same peninsula, thereby triggering the Battle of Bunker Hill.
On May 24 Gage received yet another letter from Dr. Church, this time reporting that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (a body established by the Patriots in the autumn of 1774 to supersede the royal government of the colony and whose members generally belonged to the local Committees of Correspondence) was sending the doctor to confer with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The purpose of this mission was to ask the Continental Congress to adopt the various New England militias that were laying siege to Boston as its own army — that is, to take charge of (and responsibility for) this bold and rebellious step. Dr. Church seems not to have seen the opportunities for mischief presented him by the Provincial Congress in entrusting a British mole with this important and sensitive assignment, for he expressed only his "vexation" to Gage that he would be prevented from reporting to him for some time.
In June he returned to Cambridge, where the militias laying siege to Boston were soon to be transformed into the Continental army under the command of General George Washington. The members of the Continental Congress were so impressed with Dr. Church that they appointed him director general of the army's hospital at Cambridge and chief physician of the Continental army at a salary of four dollars per day and granted him the authority to hire four surgeons and other medical staff. Although the title had not yet been created and American nationhood was yet a year away, Dr. Benjamin Church, British spy, had in effect been made the first surgeon general of the United States.
Dr. Church's treachery might have gone undetected for the duration of the war, with unimaginable consequences, but for one of those absurd little incidents that so often bring about the downfall of the covert operator. Soon after returning from Philadelphia, he received a letter in cipher from his brother-in-law, John Fleming, a Boston printer and bookseller. Fleming, apparently unwitting of Dr. Church's secret service, had written to urge him to repent his rebellion against the British government and come to Boston, where he would undoubtedly be pardoned for his transgressions. If Dr. Church was unwilling to do that immediately, Fleming continued, might he at least reply? Fleming asked him to write in cipher, address the letter in care of Major Cane — one of General Gage's aides — and send it by the hand of Captain Wallace of the H.M.S. Rose, a British warship then stationed near Newport, Rhode Island.
Dr. Church did indeed reply, but it is not clear whether he believed he was writing to his brother-in-law or to General Gage. Gage had not had a report from his spy since Church's departure for Philadelphia, and the doctor may have seen in the channel proposed by Fleming — via the master of the H.M.S. Rose — a secure means of resuming his profitable correspondence with the British commander in chief. In any case, Church's letter to Fleming contained some exaggerated reports of American military strength and some inaccurate reports of military plans, all framed within an impassioned plea to the British to adopt a more reasonable colonial policy ("For the sake of the miserable convulsed empire, solicit peace, repeal the acts, or Britain is undone"). Whether these were the sincere words of a repentant traitor or clever camouflage to guard against the chance that the letter might be intercepted and deciphered cannot be known; but if it was the latter, Dr. Church had badly miscalculated.
He dispatched the letter to Newport by the fair hand of his mistress. Unable for some reason to contact Captain Wallace of the Rose, the young woman entrusted the letter to Godfrey Wenwood, a local baker she mistakenly believed to be a Tory, before returning to Cambridge. Wenwood seems to have put aside the letter and forgotten about it until sometime in September, when he received an urgent inquiry from the woman expressing her concern that "you never Sent wot you promest to send." Realizing that word of his failure to forward the letter could have originated only in British-occupied Boston and remembering that the letter was in cipher, Wenwood became suspicious. He took the letter to Cambridge and turned it over to General Nathanael Greene, commander of the Rhode lsland contingent of the Continental army. Greene promptly passed it along to General Washington.
"I immediately secured the woman," Washington reported in a letter to the president of the Continental Congress on October 5, "but for a long time she was proof against every threat and persuasion to discover the author. However, at length she was brought to a confession and named Dr. Church."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Honorable Treachery Honorable Treachery"
Copyright © 2014 G. J. A. O'Toole.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE TRIUMPH OF THE AMATEURS: The American Revolution,
Chapter One: Liberty Boys and British Moles,
Chapter Two: The Education of an Intelligence Officer,
Chapter Three: Poor Richard's Game,
Chapter Four: George Washington, Spy Master,
Chapter Five: Endgames,
PART TWO AMERICANS AT THE GREAT GAME: 1783–1860,
Chapter Six: Intrigue in the New Republic,
Chapter Seven: Espionage and Subversion in the Second British War,
Chapter Eight: The President's Men,
Chapter Nine: Secret Service in the War with Mexico,
PART THREE ADVENT OF THE PROFESSIONALS: The Civil War,
Chapter Ten: Allan Pinkerton and the Civil War,
Chapter Eleven: Civil War Intelligence: Sources and Methods,
Chapter Twelve: European Intrigue in the Civil War,
Chapter Thirteen: Civil War Subversion,
Chapter Fourteen: The Professionals,
PART FOUR THE BIRTH OF THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY: 1865–1919,
Chapter Fifteen: Intelligence and the Game of War,
Chapter Sixteen: Espionage in the War with Spain,
Chapter Seventeen: Adversaries — Black, Green, and Orange,
Chapter Eighteen: America Blindfolded,
Chapter Nineteen: The Enemy Within,
Chapter Twenty: British Intelligence and American Countersubversion,
Chapter Twenty-one: Intelligence Redux,
Chapter Twenty-two: The Secret War in Mexico,
Chapter Twenty-three: Counterspies and Vigilantes,
Chapter Twenty-four: A Gentleman's Profession,
Chapter Twenty-five: The Russian Muddle,
Chapter Twenty-six: The Inquiry — Intelligence for the President,
PART FIVE THE ROAD TO CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE: 1920–1962,
Chapter Twenty-seven: The Red Menace,
Chapter Twenty-eight: Other People's Mail,
Chapter Twenty-nine: The Secret War with the Axis,
Chapter Thirty: Anatomy of Infamy,
Chapter Thirty-one: The Eyes and Ears of the Allies,
Chapter Thirty-two: Cloak-and-Dagger: The OSS,
Chapter Thirty-three: From OSS to Central Intelligence,
Chapter Thirty-four: The CIA Transformed,
Chapter Thirty-five: High Tech and Dirty Tricks,
Chapter Thirty-six: Failure and Vindication,
Postscript: The Eagle and the Sphinx,
Bibliography of Works Cited,