Intelligence, American

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Intelligence, American

INTELLIGENCE, AMERICAN. American civilian and military leaders during the Revolution conducted a surprisingly large array of intelligence activities: espionage, violent and non-violent covert action, deceptions, and counterintelligence operations. The impact that these activities had on the course of the war usually is overlooked in military studies and biographies of the period. In contrast to the British army's intelligence system, which was created and controlled from the top down, American intelligence activities initially were decentralized and carried out by self-appointed groups and committees operating on the local level. Fairly soon after hostilities broke out in April 1775, however, the Continental Congress started organizing overseas operations and, after a stumbling start, Continental army commander George Washington became an adept battlefield practitioner of the "black arts."


The first Patriot intelligence network on record was a secret group in Boston known as the Mechanics. An off-shoot of the Sons of Liberty, who had successfully opposed the Stamp Act in 1765, the Mechanics (meaning skilled laborers and artisans) organized resistance to British authority, sabotaged and stole British military equipment in Boston, and gathered intelligence on British troop strength and movements.

Through numerous intelligence sources, the Mechanics saw through the cover story the British devised to mask their march on Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The best-known Mechanic, Paul Revere, was part of an elaborate warning network of riders and messengers that spread news of the British action over much of eastern Massachusetts within 12 hours.


Later in 1775, the Second Continental Congress began conducting intelligence activities. On 18 September it created a Secret Committee that employed agents to covertly obtain military supplies abroad through intermediaries (in modern parlance, "cutouts" and "fronts"). The Committee also gathered intelligence about hidden Tory ammunition stores and arranged to seize them. Operatives of the committee also plundered British supplies in the southern colonies. Its members included some of the most influential representatives in the Congress, such as Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Robert Livingston, and John Dickinson.

Recognizing the need for foreign intelligence and foreign alliances, the Second Continental Congress created the Committee of Correspondence (soon renamed the Committee of Secret Correspondence) on 29 November 1775. The Committee—America's first foreign intelligence agency—employed secret agents, conducted covert operations, devised codes and ciphers, funded propaganda activities, opened private mail, and developed its own naval force. Its agents overseas included Arthur Deane, a physician in London, and Silas Deane, a former delegate to the Congress, who went to France under cover as a Bermudian merchant to make secret purchases.

After Franklin went to France in 1777 as one of the Congress's emissaries to the royal court, Paris became the hub of American intelligence and propaganda activities in Europe. Operating through front companies and intermediaries, American agents arranged for covert aid shipments from Spain and the Netherlands in their Caribbean territories. The American mission also secretly communicated with Britons and Scots sympathetic to the Patriot cause.


Patriot leaders ran several efforts to influence European opinion and undermine morale in the British army, particularly by targeting the Hessian mercenaries. The Committee of Secret Correspondence employed Charles Dumas, a Swiss journalist in The Hague, to plant stories in a Dutch newspaper to raise the United States's rating in Dutch credit markets. Franklin was especially imaginative in using propaganda. While in Paris he fabricated a letter purportedly sent by a German prince to the commander of his mercenaries in America. The letter disputed British casualty figures for the German troops, arguing that the actual number was much higher and that he was being cheated of payments owed him for dead or wounded soldiers. The bogus letter also told the officer to let his wounded soldiers die because the British would pay more for fatalities, and because injured troops might return home unfit for further service. Franklin's forgery was widely circulated in Europe and among Hessian troops in the colonies, and was credited with causing some of the between 5,000 and 6,000 Hessians desertions. On another occasion Franklin created a copy of a Boston newspaper with a phony article that said the British royal governor of Canada was paying his Indian allies for each American scalp they gave him. The story touched off an uproar in Britain, and opposition Whig politicians used it to attack British conduct of the war.

Based on intelligence received by the Committee of Secret Correspondence, the Continental Congress on 15 February 1776 authorized a covert action plan to urge the Canadians to become a "sister colony" in the struggle for independence, and appointed Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll to undertake the mission. They dispatched a French printer to Canada to publish pro-Patriot materials, and Father John Carroll negotiated with the local Catholic clergy. Franklin and his colleagues also were empowered to enlist Canadian fighters in a proxy force and to offer them sanctuary in the thirteen colonies. The overall project failed because of American military excesses against the Canadian populace, hostility of the clergy, and the inability of American commissioners to deliver little more than promises in exchange for Canada's defection.

American revolutionaries conducted many sabotage operations against British targets in the colonies and launched one mission in England. After he went to Paris with the American mission, Silas Deane engaged the services of James Aitken, who offered to sabotage English dockyards with an incendiary device he designed. On 7 December 1776, Aitken set a fire at the Portsmouth dockyard that destroyed many tons of naval supplies. After failing to penetrate the security at Plymouth, Aitken proceeded to Bristol, where he destroyed two warehouses and several homes. In response, the British government stepped up security at all military facilities, offered a reward of £1,000, and even discussed suspending habeas corpus and imposing martial law. Aitken was soon apprehended while carrying a pistol, incendiaries, and a French passport. After a speedy trial, he was hanged on 10 March 1777 in Portsmouth dockyard, where his exploits had begun.


George Washington was a skilled manager of intelligence. He recruited and debriefed Tory and Patriot sources, developed informants, interrogated prisoners and travelers, cleverly used deception and propaganda, and practiced sound tradecraft. He recognized the need for multiple sources so reports could be crosschecked, and so the compromise of one asset would not cut off intelligence from an important area. His first recorded expenditure for intelligence came only two weeks after he took command, and during the war he spent more than 10 percent of his military funds on intelligence operations.

However, Washington's first wartime intelligence venture ended in failure. Nathan Hale probably was the best-known but least successful American agent in the War of Independence. He volunteered to spy in British-held New York, but had no espionage training, no contacts or channels of communication, and no cover story to explain his absence from camp. Only his Yale diploma backstopped his cover as an itinerant schoolmaster. British Major Robert Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War who pretended to be a Patriot spy, tricked Hale into disclosing his mission. Hale was immediately captured and went to the gallows on 22 September 1776, reportedly uttering as his last words a paraphrase of a line from Joseph Addison's play, Cato: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

The Hale debacle convinced Washington that he needed an elite detachment dedicated to tactical reconnaissance that reported directly to him. He picked Thomas Knowlton to command the army's first intelligence unit, known as "Knowlton's Rangers"—130 soldiers and 20 officers sent on secret missions too dangerous for regular troops. The date 1776 on the seal of the army's intelligence service today refers to the formation of Knowlton's Rangers. Washington also received vital intelligence from stay-behind agents, such as Hercules Mulligan, who ran a clothing shop in New York frequented by British officers who often let secrets slip while in his store. Mulligan was the first to alert Washington to two British plans to capture the American commander in chief and to a planned incursion into Pennsylvania. Another source in New York was Lieutenant Lewis J. Costigin, who stayed in the city after his release in a prisoner exchange in September 1778. For several months he pretended to be on parole and roamed about, gathering intelligence on British commanders, troop deployments, shipping, and logistics, and then smuggled the information out through underground Patriot communication networks.


John Honeyman's intelligence work for Washington in December 1776 may have helped keep the Continental army in the war. The year before, Honeyman had volunteered his services and, posing as a butcher, passed freely inside British-held areas and observed enemy troop strength and movements. At Trenton he contrived to be arrested by American pickets as a suspected Tory spy and was brought to Washington, to whom he reported what he had learned. Washington then arranged for Honeyman to "escape" from the American camp so he could return to Trenton with disinformation about the Continentals' sorry state. His bogus information may have contributed to the complacency of the commander of the Hessian garrison, which was caught by surprise when Washington's forces attacked across the Delaware River on 26 December. The Trenton victory came at a critical time for the Patriots, providing a huge political and psychological boost.

The most elaborate and productive network Washington oversaw was the Culper Ring in New York and on Long Island. In the summer of 1778, General Sir Henry Clinton occupied the city, while Washington's forces were scattered around New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Needing intelligence on Clinton's forces and intentions, Washington ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge, a native of Long Island, to establish an espionage net. The spy ring eventually had about 20 members who either reported on British activities on Manhattan Island or conveyed the intelligence out of the city to Setauket and across Long Island Sound to Tallmadge's couriers in Connecticut, who then rode to Washington's encampment.

Tallmadge's operatives practiced sophisticated tradecraft that included code names, cover stories, secret writing, encryption, and dead drops. For security reasons, Washington did not have Tallmadge tell him who was in the Culper Ring. Its chief field operative was Abraham Woodhull, a Setauket farmer, whose main agents were a Quaker businessman, Robert Townshend, and the king's printer in New York, James Rivington. Other key members were Austin Roe, a Setauket tavern keeper whose frequent travels to the city for supplies afforded good cover for his work as a courier, and Caleb Brewster, who took Roe's messages from dead drops along the south coast of Long Island Sound across to Connecticut.


To offset British superiority in firepower and number of troops, Washington made frequent use of deception operations. He allowed fabricated documents to fall into the hands of enemy agents or be discussed in their presence; told couriers carrying spurious information to be "captured" by the British; and inserted forged documents in intercepted British pouches that were then sent on to their destinations. He had army procurement officers make false purchases of large quantities of supplies in places picked to convince the British that a sizeable Continental force was massing. After learning from the Culper Ring that the British planned to attack a French expedition that had just landed in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington planted information with known British agents indicating that he intended to move against New York, and he staged a "march" toward the city. Those ploys persuaded Clinton to call back his troops headed for Rhode Island. A few years later, Washington used similar techniques to hide his movement toward the Chesapeake Bay—and eventual victory at Yorktown—by convincing the British initially that he was again moving on New York.

At Yorktown, James Armistead, a slave who had joined the Marquis de Lafayette's service with his master's permission, crossed into General Charles Cornwallis's lines in the guise of an escaped slave, and was recruited by Cornwallis to return to American lines as a spy. Lafayette gave Armistead a fabricated order supposedly for a large contingent of patriot replacements—a force that did not exist. Armistead delivered the fake order in crumpled, dirty condition to Cornwallis, claiming he found it along a road during his spy mission. Cornwallis believed Armistead and did not learn he had been tricked until after the climactic battle. Another deception operation at Yorktown had Charles Morgan entering Cornwallis's camp as a "deserter." When debriefed by the British, he convinced them that Lafayette had enough boats to move all his troops against the British in one landing operation. Cornwallis was duped and dug in, rather than march out of Yorktown.


American intelligence officers tried to keep their communications secure by concealing the writing, encrypting the message, or both. While serving in Paris, Silas Deane wrote some of his intelligence reports to America with a heat-developing invisible ink. Later, he used a "sympathetic stain" created for secret communications by James Jay, a physician and the brother of John Jay. The stain was more secure than the ink used previously, because it required one chemical for writing the message and a second to develop it. Dr. Jay used the "stain" for reporting military information from London to America, and supplied quantities of the stain to Washington in America and to Deane in Paris. The Culper Ring used the stain for its secret writing.

Patriots used cryptographic methods to make messages incomprehensible to the reader. John Jay and Arthur Lee devised dictionary codes, in which numbers referred to the page and line in an agreed-upon dictionary edition where the plaintext (words of the unencrypted message) could be found. In 1775, Dumas designed the first diplomatic cipher, used by the Continental Congress and Franklin to communicate with agents and ministers in Europe. Dumas's 682-symbol system substituted numbers for letters in the order in which they appeared in a pre-selected paragraph of French prose. The Culper Ring used a numerical substitution code that Tallmadge developed. He took several hundred words and several dozen names of people or places and assigned each a number from 1 to 763 (for example, 38 meant attack, 192 stood for fort, Washington was identified as 711, and New York was replaced by 727). After receiving a message from a courier, a female operative in the ring signaled that a dead drop had been filled and identified its location using a code involving laundry hung out to dry. A black petticoat indicated that the drop was full, and the number of handkerchiefs identified the cove on Long Island Sound where the message had been hidden.

The Patriots had two notable successes in breaking British ciphers. In 1775, Elbridge Gerry and the team of Elisha Porter and Reverend Samuel West, working separately at Washington's direction, decrypted a letter that implicated Dr. Benjamin Church, the Continental army's chief surgeon, in enemy espionage. In 1781, James Lovell, who designed cipher systems used by several prominent Americans, cracked the encryption method that British commanders used to communicate with each other. When a dispatch from Cornwallis in Yorktown to Clinton in New York was intercepted, Lovell's cryptanalysis enabled Washington to gauge how desperate Cornwallis's situation was and when to attack the British lines. Soon after, another decrypt by Lovell warned the French fleet off Yorktown that a British relief expedition was approaching. The French scared off the British flotilla, assuring victory for the Americans.


At the start of the war, American counterintelligence efforts focused on identifying and arresting British agents, Tories, and Tory sympathizers. Several discoveries—Church's service as a British spy; the royal governor of New York's recruitment of agents to sabotage Patriot defenses in and around New York City; and an assassination plot against Washington by his bodyguards—prompted American leaders to give greater attention to counterintelligence. Probably the first Patriot organization created for such purposes was the New York State Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. Led by future chief justice John Jay, the Committee collected intelligence, apprehended British spies and couriers, and interrogated suspected British sympathizers. The Committee's main area of operation was the strategic Hudson River Valley area, where the British were aggressively enlisting Tory sympathizers. The Committee had the power to arrest and try, to grant bail or parole, and to jail or deport. A company of militia was placed under its command to implement its broad charter. The Committee heard over 500 cases involving disloyalty and subversion.

A few American counterintelligence officers made significant operational achievements. Enoch Crosby was probably the best known of Jay's agents. A shoemaker by trade, Crosby traveled around the lower Hudson River Valley area in true cover, joining Tory groups, gathering evidence of their pro-British activities, and then passing the information to Jay, who then had the groups arrested. Crosby always managed to "escape" just as the group he had infiltrated was about to be apprehended. His success made him one of the models for the central character in the first espionage novel written in English, James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821).

Another successful American counterintelligence officer was Captain David Gray of Massachusetts. Posing as a deserter, Gray entered the service of Colonel Beverly Robinson, a Tory intelligence officer, and became his courier. As a result, the Americans read the contents of each of Robinson's dispatches before their delivery. Gray eventually became the courier for Major Oliver DeLancey Jr., the head of the British secret service in New York. For two years Gray, as DeLancey's courier to Canada, successfully penetrated the principal communications link of the British secret service. Upon completing his assignment, Gray returned to the Continental army, and his name was struck from the deserter list, where Washington had placed it at the beginning of the operation to establish his cover.

The most notorious counterintelligence case of the war involved General Benedict Arnold, an accomplished but ambitious, greedy, and disgruntled Continental army commander. Arnold—whose arduous but abortive wintertime campaign against Quebec in 1775 and serious wound at Saratoga had proven his devotion to the cause—felt aggrieved because he had been passed over for promotion and was court-martialed for financial malfeasance. In addition, he had married a devoted Tory, Peggy Shippen. In May 1779 he began conspiring with a British friend of his wife's, John André. While commander at West Point, he negotiated with the British to surrender that strategically vital installation for £20,000. When Arnold learned that André had been caught, he fled to the British lines and later organized the "American Legion" that staged guerrilla-style raids in Virginia and Connecticut. Arnold's treachery so incensed Washington that he ordered at least two operations to capture the war's most infamous turncoat.


Although it is hard to precisely gauge the overall contribution intelligence made to the American victory, it directly contributed to important tactical successes at Trenton, Princeton, Newport, and Yorktown. The war probably would have lasted longer, cost more lives, and caused more social and economic upheaval without the secret activities that the Americans conducted. As the first president, Washington drew on his wartime experience to run intelligence operations using secret funds he persuaded Congress to appropriate for that purpose.

SEE ALSO Committee of Secret Correspondence; Deane, Silas; Franklin, Benjamin; Hale, Nathan (1755–1776); Jay, John; Knowlton, Thomas.?


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