Declassified CIA Document Reveals That Ben Franklin (and His Big Ego) Put U.S. National Security at Risk

ben franklin

Ben­jamin Franklin might have been a bril­liant author, pub­lish­er, sci­en­tist, inven­tor and states­man, but he was pret­ty lousy at keep­ing state secrets. That’s the find­ing from a recent­ly declas­si­fied CIA analy­sis of Franklin’s crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant diplo­mat­ic mis­sion to France dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War.

In Sep­tem­ber 1776, Franklin was dis­patched to Paris to enlist France’s sup­port for the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. At the time, France was still smart­ing from los­ing the Sev­en Years’ War to Britain and was eager to do any­thing that could reduce its rival’s pow­er and pres­tige. Franklin’s Com­mis­sion ran all kinds of clan­des­tine oper­a­tions with tac­it French aid, includ­ing procur­ing weapons, sup­plies and mon­ey for the Amer­i­can Army; sab­o­tag­ing the Portsmouth Roy­al Navy Dock­yard; and nego­ti­at­ing a secret treaty between Amer­i­ca and France.

And accord­ing the CIA’s in-house pub­li­ca­tion, Stud­ies in Intel­li­gence, the British knew just about every­thing that was going on. “The British had a com­plete pic­ture of Amer­i­can-French activ­i­ties sup­port­ing the war in Amer­i­ca and of Amer­i­can inten­tions regard­ing an alliance with France. The British used this intel­li­gence effec­tive­ly against the Amer­i­can cause.”

Some of the prob­lems with the Com­mis­sion seem head-slap­ping­ly obvi­ous. “There was no real phys­i­cal secu­ri­ty at the Com­mis­sion itself. The pub­lic had access to the man­sion, doc­u­ments and papers were spread out all over the office, and pri­vate dis­cus­sions were held in pub­lic areas.”

One of Franklin’s fel­low com­mis­sion­ers, Arthur Lee, was out­raged over this lack of secu­ri­ty.

[Lee] wrote that a French offi­cial “had com­plained that every­thing we did was known to the Eng­lish ambas­sador, who was always plagu­ing him with the details. No one will be sur­prised at this who knows that we have no time or place appro­pri­ate to our con­sul­ta­tion, but that ser­vants, strangers, and every­one else was at lib­er­ty to enter and did con­stant­ly enter the room while we were talk­ing about pub­lic busi­ness and that the papers relat­ing to it lay open in rooms of com­mon and con­tin­u­al resort.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the Amer­i­can mis­sion was rid­dled with British spies; chief among them was Franklin’s long-time friend Edward Ban­croft, who, as the Commission’s sec­re­tary, had com­plete access to all of its papers. He was report­ed­ly paid a prince­ly sum of 1000 pounds a year by the British Empire to play the part of an Enlight­en­ment-era James Bond.

Lee sus­pect­ed Ban­croft of being a spy, but Franklin dis­missed his con­cerns large­ly because he great­ly dis­liked Lee. “[Franklin’s] atti­tude … is all too famil­iar among pol­i­cy­mak­ers and states­men,” writes the CIA. “His ego may have over­whelmed his com­mon sense.”

In the end, the ana­lyst lays the blame on these cat­a­stroph­ic laps­es in intel­li­gence on that inflat­ed ego.

“By the time [Franklin] arrived in Paris in late 1776, he was elder­ly and had lit­tle inter­est in the admin­is­tra­tive aspects of the Com­mis­sion. Franklin was wide­ly rec­og­nized as a states­man, sci­en­tist, and intel­lec­tu­al. While high­ly respect­ed, he was also vain, obsti­nate, and jeal­ous of his pre­rog­a­tives and rep­u­ta­tion. … The Com­mis­sion was “under pro­tec­tion” of the French Gov­ern­ment, and Franklin may have under­es­ti­mat­ed British capa­bil­i­ties to oper­ate in a third coun­try. In any event, he did noth­ing to cre­ate a secu­ri­ty con­scious­ness at the Com­mis­sion.”

The por­trait that the CIA paints is indeed a grim one that in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances could have lost the war. Thank­ful­ly, Britain proved whol­ly unable to use this wealth of infor­ma­tion to turn the tide of the war. As the CIA wry­ly notes: “Per­haps the great­est irony in the whole sto­ry of the pen­e­tra­tion of the Amer­i­can Com­mis­sion is that, while British intel­li­gence activ­i­ties were high­ly suc­cess­ful, British pol­i­cy was a total fail­ure.”

Via io9

Relat­ed Con­tent:

FBI’s “Vault” Web Site Reveals Declas­si­fied Files on Hem­ing­way, Ein­stein, Mar­i­lyn & Oth­er Icons

Albert Camus Writes a Friend­ly Let­ter to Jean-Paul Sartre Before Their Per­son­al and Philo­soph­i­cal Rift

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing  vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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