Counterintelligence is as American as Apple Pie

America just celebrated another July 4th and, while it was a happier affair than the contested Canada Day feted by our neighbors to the north, the sense that the country is emerging from 18 months of coronavirus shutdown was palpable. Although the Biden administration failed to meet its goal of at least 70 percent of the population getting one dose of some Covid-19 vaccine by Independence Day, most Americans are clearly ready to leave lockdowns and masks behind them, at least when the summer sun is shining.

Some on the Left made their bad feelings about July 4th known via Twitter, including two black Democratic Congressmembers who denounced the national holiday as racist and nothing to celebrate. Not to be outdone, taxpayer-funded National Public Radio tweeted about how unequal the Declaration of Independence was by today’s standards, thereby implying that July 4th is, as the woke like to say, problematic. This led to social media uproar on the Right, presumably as intended, with much disapproval expressed for any negativity about Independence Day.

It should be noted that some on the Right spent the days leading up to July 4th howling unpatriotically about the perfidy of the alleged “Deep State,” thanks to recent claims by Tucker Carlson, the top Fox News talker, that the National Security Agency was spying on him and, even worse, plotting to get his nightly show cancelled. Although these claims were absurd on their face, resulting in an unprecedented NSA press release denying Carlson’s assertions, the FNC star spent three consecutive nights repeating his accusations, never offering a shred of evidence for them.

All that needs to be said here is that Fox News has not published a single report investigating or even commenting on Carlson’s astonishing claims. FNC’s news division, which is separate from the opinion side, clearly feels there’s nothing to report on here, even though Carlson accused NSA of spying on and plotting to shut down that network’s most-watched show – a claim which, if true, would be bigger than Watergate, Clintongate, Russiagate, or any-gate.

Carlson’s ridiculous assertion is now fated to linger among his conspiracy-minded fanbase indefinitely, sashaying over to where partisan myths go to never quite die. “NSA tried to cancel Tucker” will now join “Hillary’s hit team murdered Seth Rich” and “Democrats run a child-rape prison under Comet Pizza” in the pantheon of kook-Right mythology.

To be fair, NSA’s denial left wide open the possibility that the agency intercepted Carlson’s communications while it was monitoring foreign spies or terrorists. That’s called “incidental collection” and it’s completely legal. In fact, it constitutes perfectly normal counterintelligence work of the kind done by pretty much every developed country on earth. In democracies, unlike dictatorships, such counterintelligence operations are controlled by law and oversight. There’s nothing wrong, illegal or sinister about them.

Of course, for many decades, the enemies of Western democracy have worked hard at stigmatizing normal counterintelligence work, especially the detection and neutralization of enemy spies, smearing it as sinister when not merely risible. This began early in the Cold War when many liberals who were hardly sympathetic to Communism nevertheless found Senator Joe McCarthy and his conservative Red-hunting ilk so repulsive that they became, in effect, anti-anti-Communists, more interested in denouncing counterintelligence than worrying about Soviet espionage. In fairness to those liberals, they didn’t know that the U.S. government knew a great deal about the realities of Soviet espionage thanks to NSA’s Top Secret VENONA counterintelligence program; neither did Tailgunner Joe.

Nevertheless, it became commonplace on the Left, not just the Marxist fringe, to view legitimate counterintelligence work as evil and laughable in equal measure, with the implication that you had to be paranoid to think anybody would really spy on the United States. This viewpoint fit well with late 1960s liberal sensibilities, then got weird in the 1970s, when so many things got weird, and American popular culture featured counterintelligence officers who were ridiculous paranoids, while the Intelligence Community was supposedly murdering its own personnel and any other Americans who got in their way. In the 1970s, many left-liberals grew to fear and loathe counterintelligence, and nothing angered them more than the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, the dreaded COINTELPRO, which down to its dissolution in 1971 spied on and influenced a whole range of Leftist radical groups. They seemed less upset that COINTELPRO’s greatest success was its WHITE HATE program, commenced in 1964, which permanently broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan.

So did suspicion of counterintelligence become a matter of faith among many liberals, a distaste that lingers down to the present day. What’s changed in recent years is that many of the standard left-wing tropes about the perfidy of perfectly legal and normal counterintelligence work have been adopted by the Trumpist Right. As president, Donald Trump railed nonstop against the “Deep State” and its alleged efforts to smear and undermine the Trump administration. Trump’s fear of counterintelligence was palpable (exactly why has been explained previously by Top Secret Umbra). It was this newfound conservative hatred for counterintelligence, the sense that any counterspy work is illegitimate, undemocratic, and scary, which Tucker Carlson channeled last week with his anti-NSA rants.

MAGA types revere the Founding Fathers, at least in theory, and are horrified by left-wing smears of July 4th, so it pains me to inform them that, in fact, the Founders loved counterintelligence. They considered nothing more important to the Revolution’s success than robust protection against enemy spies and saboteurs. We have the words of George Washington himself here, the Father of the Nation, who expressed his feelings on counterintelligence concisely, when the commander of the Continental Army sent a letter dated March 24, 1776, to Colonel Josiah Quincy, a Patriot leader in Boston. Here, even before the Declaration of Independence, General Washington noted his concerns about what we would term Operational Security and Communications Security, and included this admonition:

“There is one evil I dread, & that is their Spies”

Intelligence in the American Revolution is a subject little understood by the public, but specialist historians are well aware of the pivotal role played by espionage in the success of the Continental Army against the British Empire. During Benjamin Franklin’s highly productive tenure as America’s ambassador to Paris throughout the Revolution, which included securing France’s all-important intervention in the conflict on our side, Franklin engaged in very effective espionage, counterespionage, and propaganda work for the Patriot cause (while maintaining a highly active social schedule). Franklin is rightly regarded by the Intelligence Community as the founding father of American covert action.

No less impressive was the work of John Jay, a leading Founding Father from New York who is known to most historians as one of the framers of the Constitution, author of five of the Federalist Papers, an eminent diplomat, and first Chief Justice of the United States. To the IC, however, Jay is revered as the founding father of American counterintelligence.

In 1776, aged just 30, Jay stood up the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies based in New York, to deter and crush British espionage against the Patriot cause. Jay’s committee represented the first American counterintelligence agency, and it worked diligently to protect the Continental Army from British spying and sabotage. Jay’s men investigated more than 500 suspected cases of betrayal and sedition, including William Tryon, the former colonial governor of New York, who was running British spy networks against the Revolution. Most importantly, Jay and his counterspies unmasked and took down a plot to assassinate General Washington. British spies had infiltrated Washington’s elite bodyguard and were planning to murder the Patriot leader. Jay’s committee discovered the plot and unraveled the British spy network, resulting the execution of one bodyguard, Thomas Hickey, for “mutiny, sedition, and treachery.”

Thus did John Jay and his counterintelligence outfit save the life of General Washington – and with it the Patriot cause. The Revolution could never have succeeded without such robust counterespionage, countersubversion, and counterpropaganda work. Jay’s interest in intelligence matters continued after the birth of the United States and he included his take the Federalist No. 64 in March 1788:

It seldom happens in the negotiation of treaties, of whatever nature, but that perfect SECRECY and immediate DESPATCH are sometimes requisite. These are cases where the most useful intelligence may be obtained, if the persons possessing it can be relieved from apprehensions of discovery. Those apprehensions will operate on those persons whether they are actuated by mercenary or friendly motives; and there doubtless are many of both descriptions, who would rely on the secrecy of the President, but who would not confide in that of the Senate, and still less in that of a large popular Assembly. The convention have done well, therefore, in so disposing of the power of making treaties, that although the President must, in forming them, act by the advice and consent of the Senate, yet he will be able to manage the business of intelligence in such a manner as prudence may suggest.

Counterintelligence is as American as apple pie, indeed Patriots would have never prevailed against the British Empire had they not taken the business of rooting out enemy spies seriously. Vigilance about getting counterintelligence right by the Founding Fathers predated the birth of the United States itself and ensured that the Revolution prevailed. American patriots today should keep that in mind when they critique our Intelligence Community.