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A Look Back ... Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father of Covert Action

There was never a good war or a bad peace.
—Benjamin Franklin



With the beginning of the Revolutionary War came the birth of American intelligence. Since then, the tradecraft of intelligence has been developed and improved to better protect our nation. Our nation’s birthday is a good time to reflect on how intelligence tradecraft began.


Twice a Founding Father

One founding father who contributed to the development of American Intelligence was Benjamin Franklin. He became known as a master of covert action.

Long before the war, Franklin had established a reputation as:

  • a scientist of distinction,
  • a seasoned diplomat,
  • a world-class thinker, and
  • a talented public servant.

He utilized all of these skills to carry out covert actions successfully. During the war, Franklin served as:

  • an agent of influence,
  • a propagandist,
  • manager of covert French aid to the American Revolutionaries, and
  • director of American paramilitary activities against the British.


Befriending the French

In December 1776, Franklin was named the Ambassador to France. During his time in Paris, Franklin developed a relationship with the French Government that involved much more than diplomatic work. His real mission was to convince the French Government to become a military ally against the British.

In order to accomplish this, Franklin used his charm and virtues to establish a reputation as a friendly, humble and industrious American. This image was in stark contrast to how the French perceived the British at that time.

Franklin’s charm and established friendships with French officials allowed him to successfully manipulate French perceptions of America. On more than one occasion, Franklin convinced the French authorities not to reduce secret aid or block American privateer ships from using French ports despite British protests and threats.

After the American victory during the Battle of Saratoga, Franklin convinced French leadership that he was seriously considering British peace proposals. He orchestrated meetings between the American Commissioners and British envoys, all the while informing French authorities of the discussions and keeping up appearances that a peace agreement was inevitable.

Franklin’s trick worked. On January 7, 1778, the French Royal Council decided to negotiate an alliance with America.


A Master of Propaganda

Franklin was also quite talented in producing convincing propaganda. One of his more famous propaganda operations involved generating dissatisfaction among German mercenaries serving with British forces in America.

In 1777, Franklin composed a letter from a Prussian Prince to the commander of the Prince’s mercenary troops. The letter questioned casualty figures provided by the British Government and exposed British human rights violations committed against the Americans.

The forged letter also advised the commander to let his wounded soldiers die because the British would pay more for a death than for a wounded soldier. The letter was widely circulated in Europe and among Prussian troops in the colonies, and was credited with causing numerous desertions.


Paramilitary Operations

During the Revolutionary War, Franklin was involved in many paramilitary operations, including coordinating the efforts of privateers operating out of French and other European ports against British shipping. Franklin also played a role in the only American military attack on the British Isles during the Revolutionary War period.

In April 1778, Captain John Paul Jones raided the British port of Whitehaven. Franklin and Jones had planned to burn the ships at port. However, once the attackers were ashore, the element of surprise was lost and they were forced to retreat. The cost of the damage was minimal; no more than 250 – 300 pounds (less than $50,000 of today’s U.S. dollars).

Even though the raid was not successful, it was an important achievement for America in terms of propaganda and morale. A British town had been invaded for the first time since the late 1600s.

As a founding father, Benjamin Franklin understood that intelligence is as vital an element of national defense as a strong military. He also knew the importance of secrecy for conducting effective intelligence operations. Franklin used his intellect and humor to win friendships and build French support for the American independence struggle.

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Posted: Jul 02, 2009 12:22 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:15 PM