Which presidential hopeful did Russia first spy on? Despite recent headlines, it wasn't Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSchumer confronts wealthy Trump supporter in restaurant: report With GOP’s healthcare bill on ice, Dems go on offense Trump asks why Clintons' ties to Russia aren't under investigation MORE's campaign chairman. It wasn't Presidents Nixon or Kennedy.
The answer goes much farther back. Here's the first "hacked" spy story.
America's official relationship with Russia began more than 200 years ago when President James Madison sent John Quincy Adams — at the time, a former senator, but later president himself — to serve as America's first top diplomat to Russia, which had finally decided to acknowledge U.S. independence.
Adams's mission in 1809 was to convince the czar of Russia, Emperor Alexander I, to trade with America. If Russia, the largest country in Europe, would trade openly with the United States, then France and England would feel pressure to alter their abusive trade policies toward the U.S.
Many members of Congress didn't view this triangulation strategy as viable or necessary. Some saw the move as a political opportunity to prevent John Quincy Adams, the son of second President John Adams and thus a presidential hopeful, from having a successful career in domestic politics.
Sen. Timothy Pickering (Mass.) despised John Quincy so much that he quipped: "The best thing that could be done" was to send Adams's "out of the country." Adams's friends were somewhat kinder and called his Russian mission an "honorable exile."
Lacking wealth and the ability to entertain like other diplomats, Adams initially feared he wouldn't be able to compete in Alexander I's lavish court. Adams and his wife Louisa soon discovered that they had something in common with the emperor: exercise. They all enjoyed taking walks around St. Petersburg, where they could run into each other and talk privately but casually about everything from the weather to politics.
After Louisa Adams ran into the czar one December afternoon, he "turned to me and said that it was essential to my health that I should take such exercise and desired that we should walk every fine day when he should hope to meet us," she wrote.
Alexander signaled his intent to trade with America by dancing with Louisa Adams at a ball honoring Napoleon in Russia, which I chronicle in my book "American Phoenix." This dance set off fireworks and the realization by French diplomats in Russia that Alexander had his eye on trading with America after all.
In 1812, when America went to war with Britain and French Emperor Napoleon invaded Russia, Alexander saw an opportunity to strengthen Russia's influence in the world by offering to mediate a peace treaty between Britain and the United States. Though Great Britain informally rejected Alexander's offer, the British felt the noose of triangulation nonetheless and decided to negotiate directly with the United States.
"I fear the emperor of Russia is half an American," the British prime minister complained of the triangulation.
Though in many ways, the Russian czar had befriended America, that didn't keep him from spying on his friend and the future sixth president of the United States. Louisa Adams was "hacked" 19th-century style while talking with a diplomat's wife.
"In the course of conversation, she told me that the emperor had seen all our letters to our family," Louisa recorded. Alexander's foreign minister had given John Quincy Adams the use of a land courier to carry letters to the U.S. diplomatic post in Paris, which would forward the correspondence to America by ship.
"I observed that it was very ungenerous of His Majesty after offering to send our dispatches by a private and special courier to use the opportunity against us," Louisa Adams wrote.
Thankfully, John Quincy Adams had used the secret code created by the U.S. State Department to encrypt his official letters to Madison. Nonetheless, the czar knew their private thoughts about him and Russia that they had sent to their families, including letters to former President John Adams. Fortunately, Louisa and John Quincy had written flattering observations.
Hence, Alexander, not current Russian President Vladimir Putin, became the first leader of Russia to spy on the correspondence of a future U.S. president.
Ironically, John Quincy Adams is the only president to turn around his lackluster political fortunes by way of Russia. His success with Alexander led him to serve on the peace treaty team that ended the War of 1812, enabled him to become secretary of State and then president.
Yet, his story shows that even when America has a strong relationship and several common interests with Russia, spycraft is still part of the equation.
Interestingly, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMSNBC's Maddow most-watched among younger viewers for 3rd-straight week Protesters plan 'Tax March' on Washington demanding Trump's tax returns With GOP’s healthcare bill on ice, Dems go on offense MORE recently referred to using a courier when fending questions about Russia's hacking of Clinton's campaign emails. "If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way," Trump replied.
Most Americans today understandably view Russia through a post Soviet-era lens because communism dominated Russian politics in the 20th-century. Knowing more about America's earlier relationship with Russia in its empire era can help us make better sense of what is happening today.
Frederick W. Kagan recently wrote for the American Enterprise Institute that "[Putin] is redefining Russian identity in the terms used in the 19th Century — Russian Orthodoxy, nationalism and strong government."
Could it be that Trump is seeking to use the same timeless technique that Madison and John Quincy Adams used in the 19th century — triangulation — in crafting his foreign policy with Russia?
Does he want to leverage Putin and Russia for the common interest of defeating Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or pressuring China on trade or other issues?
Only time will tell.
But if history is a guide, encryption is essential to protecting state secrets, whether Russia is a friend or foe or whether the players involved use couriers or computers. Technology changes, but some things never change.
Jane Hampton Cook is a former White House webmaster and author of several books, including "American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence," which reveals the political resurrection of John Quincy and Louisa Adams, and, most recently, "The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812." She is also the creator of revolution240.com. Follow her on Twitter @janehamptoncook.
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