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Stephen Knott speaks about espionage, kidnapping, and spycraft at America’s founding

On April 13, 2016 at The Institute of World Politics campus, Stephen F. Knott, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, spoke about spy techniques used by the American founding fathers in a lecture titled “Espionage, Kidnapping, and the Dark Art of Spycraft at America’s Founding.” In addition to being a professor at the Naval War College, Professor Knott has served as co-chair of the University of Virginia’s Presidential Oral History Program and directed the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project. He is also the author of a number of books on the history of Alexander Hamilton.

Professor Knott began by explaining that the use of clandestine operations in the US goes back to the time of the American Revolution. He spoke about “the myth that would not die,” which is that clandestine operations are a cancerous growth of the 20th and 21st centuries in America. Professor Knott explained that this myth is simply “a fairy tale account of American history” which began at the time of the Church Commission in the 1970s. This myth was only furthered during the Carter presidential election, as well as the Iran-Contra Affair in 1987. Today, according to Professor Knott, this myth is further perpetuated by libertarian Republicans such as Rand Paul who cite Edward Snowden as heroes.

In Professor Knott’s view, all of these factors have led to the concept that the Founding Fathers would not stand for clandestine operations, something Professor Knott sees a patently false. In his view, the only way to enlist the Founding Fathers in banning covert operations is done through distorting the historical record.

Professor Knott described some of the history of George Washington and his face off against the superpower of its time. Washington saw that it was critical to use whatever means possible to defeat a superpower that could outmatch the Continental Army in every possible conventional means. This was what led to Washington hiring spies in Cambridge, Massachusetts who would gather intelligence on British military officers and British loyalists and report them back to Washington. But these spies also had a hand in deception, purposefully deceiving the British military about Washington’s moves.

Professor Knott noted that, during the Revolutionary War, 11% of total military expenditures were spent on intelligence operations, and some of expenditures even came out of Washington’s own personal funds. On the topic of state secrecy, Washington is quoted as saying that “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.”

This concept carried over into Washington’s post-war position as President – a position which still had the same powers as the commander of the army did during the Revolution. Professor Knott exemplified Washington’s view by illuminating Washington’s request for a secret service fund which would have no accountability to Congress, a move that does not fit with the modern view of Washington as being against covert operations.

Professor Knott moved on to Jefferson, who, as President, had similar views to Washington with regards to espionage and clandestine operations. Jefferson, in Professor Knott’s view, was “the most Machiavellian president of all the founders,” and a president who used many clandestine operations. Professor Knott gave a stories about Jefferson’s actions, which included replacing a Barbary King, using private citizens for intelligence operations, suggesting burning down St. Paul’s Cathedral in retaliation for the burning of the White House, and others.

Professor Knott noted that today, there have been certain changes in technology, as well as the creation of large bureaucratic entities like the CIA or NSA. He also does not believe there were parallels to the CIA at the time of the founding fathers. But Professor Knott emphasized that the kind of bureaucratic controls that exist today make those entities more disciplined than the “freelancers” of the founding fathers’ time.

Professor Knott concluded that in the 41 years between when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and when James Madison left the White House, the nascent US government had authorized an astounding number of covert actions. These covert actions included kidnapping, bribing foreign leaders, using clergy and media, overthrowing a foreign government, and assisting insurgencies. Professor Knott stated that one cannot enlist America’s founders in the cause of limiting and banning these kind of covert operations, because these operations are as American as the founding fathers.