If intelligence is information, and military intelligence is information that helps a commander deal with an enemy, than no less a commander than George Washington underscored best why the black art of the spy has been an essential part of American foreign policy since before the Revolution: "The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged," he observed to one of his lieutenants in July of 1777.
The Father of our Country spoke from bitter experience. He lost his very first battle of the American Revolution because of a massive intelligence failure.
Washington had assumed command of the Continental Army in Cambridge on July 2, 1775. His military experience was limited to his role as a lieutenant colonel during the French and Indian War some sixteen years previously. He had never attended a military academy and in fact he'd had little formal education at all. He was forty-three years old.
The military situation at Boston was a stalemate: Washington's tiny army was sufficient to lay siege to the city, but not to capture it from General Thomas Gage, who had commanded a three thousand man advance guard in a bloody battle against the French and Indians in a ravine near the Monongahela River twenty years previously. As aide-de-camp to General Edward Braddock in that campaign, Washington had his horse shot out from under him, and had seen Braddock killed in a classic surprise attack. Nearly a thousand British had died that day—as opposed to less than fifty of the French. It had been the worst British military debacle on the American continent, and Gage was in no mood to give the enemy a chance for a second victory in the Americas.
Gage had three choices: attack Washington's army and attempt to lift the siege, evacuate Boston by sea, or do nothing but sit and wait for reinforcements from England. Gage chose to wait the Americans out, primarily because he had a network of spies and informants in place, and their reports assured him of Washington's troop strength and position. With fair winds and continued good intelligence, it seemed a certainty that the British would eventually prevail.
Significantly, at this time, General George Washington had but a single spy in action against the British. According to his accounts record, on July 15, 1775, less than two weeks after he took command, Washington paid $333.33 to someone whose name is lost to history "to go into the town of Boston to establish secret correspondence for the purpose of conveying intelligence of the Enemys movements and designs."
In October of that year, Gage was relieved by General William Howe. By January of 1776, with more spies finally in place, Washington had reason to believe that Howe's deputy, General Henry Clinton, would attack New York with an expeditionary force of fifteen hundred men. Both Howe and Washington understood that New York was crucial to control of the Hudson River, the means whereby the southern arm of the British forces would eventually meet up with those moving down the river from Canada, along the shores of Lake Champlain.
By February, the battle lines had somewhat changed. General Clinton sailed instead to South Carolina and failed to capture Charleston. Howe's New York plans were disrupted by the arrival of more than fifty pieces of heavy artillery that had been captured by the patriots at Fort Ticonderoga. Washington eagerly placed the cannon on Dorchester Heights where they threatened Boston, the harbor, and an end to the stalemate that had been in effect for almost nine months.
Howe gave the order to evacuate Boston on March 7th. Convinced that New York was Howe's strategic destination, Washington fatefully moved his army to New York, discovering in the process how difficult the island was to defend, even with an army ten times the size of his own. Surrounded by easily navigable waterways beyond which lay the shores of Long Island, Staten Island, and New Jersey—from which attacks could easily be staged—the island of Manhattan also contained a large proportion of Tories loyal to England and an enormous number of British spies.
Howe's actual battle plan would be revealed to Washington as an unhappy surprise. Instead of marching to New York, Howe repaired to Nova Scotia, and—regrouped and reinforced—arrived off Sandy Hook, New Jersey in June of 1776 in an enormous flotilla of 130 vessels. British spies immediately boarded the ships, flush with news of Washington's disposition of forces in New York. On July 2nd, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, the General's brother, arrived with another 150 ships. Additionally German mercenaries arrived in yet another flotilla, and on August 12th General Clinton and his force arrived from Charleston.
More than thirty-one thousand troops, ten ships of the line, twenty frigates, and hundreds of small transports manned by over ten thousand British seamen stood poised to destroy the Continental Army.
Between August 24th and 29th in the year 1776, the British inflicted more than 1400 casualties on the Americans. If George Washington had not been able to retreat across the East River under the cover of fog and darkness, the American war for independence would have been lost before it had truly begun.
Fully aware that it was a matter of failed intelligence that had cost so many lives, one of Washington's first acts subsequent to the battle of New York was to commission Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton to form a company of hand-picked volunteers in order to carry out reconnaissance missions and special operations "either by water or by land, by night or by day."
Knowlton's Rangers, as they were known, marked the birth of United States Army Intelligence, and the year of their formation is memorialized on the U.S. Army Military Intelligence emblem to this day.
Regarding American Espionage:
George Washington, Spymaster
Wild Bill Donovan
the Stars of Project Paperclip
burning crosses in the Fatherland
doing drugs for fun and profit
the CIA wants YOU!
When is a monkey's orgasm more than just fun and games?
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
The Nuremberg Code
The Bureau and the Mole
Honorable Treachery, G.J.A. O'Toole, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991
Writings, George Washington, U.S. Government printing Office, 1931-44
Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Mark M. Boatner, New York: McKay, 1974