J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Value of Spying in America

Michael J. Sulick was the chief of counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency from 2002 to 2004 and director of its National Clandestine Service from 2007 to 2010. He wrote Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War to create “one compact volume” that includes case studies from several periods of American history, something he felt was missing from the market or the classroom.

Spying in America doesn’t try to be comprehensive or to break new ground in discussing espionage in America. And it doesn’t. It leans heavily on secondary sources, most of them more than a generation old, such as the books by John and Katherine Bakeless. Other sources cited in the chapters about the Revolution include an article in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Thomas B. Allen’s George Washington, Spymaster for young readers, and the websites of the C.I.A. and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In fact, Spying in America relies so much on secondary sources that chapter epigraphs from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other well-documented historical figures aren’t credited to the original letters but to other books that have previously quoted those letters.

The Revolutionary War section starts with a short introductory chapter. Unfortunately, it contains basic errors. Page 16, for example, mischaracterizes the American Whigs’ preferred political solution to the conflict (not representation in Parliament but more autonomy for their colonial legislatures) and misapplies the John Adams quotation about a third of Americans opposing the Revolution (citing Howard Zinn). The next page misstates the reasons behind the British march to Concord in April 1775 and says Paul Revere’s fellow observers “were dubbed the Mechanics,” as if that were a formal name rather than the generic term for their class in society.

Three long-studied case studies follow, again with unfortunate errors. In retelling the treachery of Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., the book displays Revere’s engraving of the doctor’s namesake ancestor as if it were a portrait of the traitor himself. This chapter also states that Church was at the Boston Tea Party, but an anonymous Crown source—i.e., just the sort of informer a book about espionage might highlight—placed him inside the Old South Meeting-House instead. (I can’t knock Sulick for not including my findings about Church’s mistress, published just this year in the big Washington study.)

The study of spying in the American delegation to Paris highlights the role of secretary Edward Bancroft, but then indulges in the wish-fulfilling suggestion that Franklin was onto the man all along. We Americans not only forgive Franklin his known tricks but happily believe he was up to more than he probably was. This chapter mentions Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir, a gentleman who came to America in late 1775 as an unofficial emissary from the French court; it doesn’t note that Bonvouloir was in Massachusetts early in that year or that British agents had filed reports on him during the months in between.

To retell the story of Benedict Arnold’s treachery, Sulick relies most on Willard Wallace’s 1954 biography, which repeats a lot of dubious legends about the man’s boyhood. James Kirby Martin’s 1997 biography, Dave R. Palmer’s George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and other recent books seem more reliable, and also offer more detail about Peggy Arnold’s role in the affair.

Spying in America jumps right from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, leaving out the highest placed known foreign agent ever to serve in the U.S. government: Revolutionary War veteran Gen. James Wilkinson, for more than ten years the top American general and also a paid agent of Spain.

I sense an unstated, perhaps unrecognized, purpose in this compilation. Sulick focuses on espionage against the U.S. during major conflicts while skipping successful intelligence-gathering and aggressive covert action by Americans (except against the Confederacy). These stories are thus all about Americans discovering spies in our midst. The book’s message is clear in the title of its introduction: “The Peril of Disbelief.” Readers must never let their guard down or doubt the need for vigorous government counterintelligence.

Yet Sulick notes that the U.S. had no coordinated counterintelligence effort until 1939, though the country had grown tremendously during the preceding century and a half. I wouldn’t argue that the greater threats of the mid-20th century and today, with faster communications and weapons delivery and more complex systems, require vigilance. But since the world has changed so greatly, how much useful information can we really learn from thin versions of the tales of Church, Bancroft, and Arnold? Those stories seem to be included for their “Founders’ Chic” value: even Washington and Franklin had to deal with spies!

Georgetown University Press could have served this book better during editing. For instance, page 5 tells us that in 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt assigned responsibility for counterespionage to the F.B.I., and then page 6 tells us the same thing.

On the other hand, the publisher provided a great exterior design by Tim Green of Faceout Studio. The image above doesn’t do it justice. The dust jacket is a translucent vellum with a triangular cutout for the all-seeing eye of the dollar bill’s Great Seal—looking out for us or starting out on us?

(Review based on copy provided by the publisher.)

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