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George Washington: More than a General and a President

By DIA Public Affairs

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April 20, 2014 — Editor’s Note: This article is the second of a series highlighting the origins of American military intelligence and how it led to the birth of DIA. The American military intelligence system during the Revolutionary War was an active and effective instrument that helped counterbalance British numerical and operational superiority by informing American generals about their movements while it also deceived the British into making strategic errors. General George Washington was an avid user of military intelligence, which played a significant role in the eventual defeat of the British. The intelligence organizations created by Washington were dismantled after the war and this was a pattern that would repeat itself for much of the next two centuries.

From the Revolutionary War to the early years of the Cold War interest in and resources devoted to military intelligence surged during wartime and diminished or disappeared during peacetime. This lack of a sustained commitment to military intelligence contributed to several intelligence failures.
The problem was compounded by the fact that the intelligence apparatus of each military service was entirely separate from one another, making intelligence sharing and coordination difficult. These issues were not resolved until the establishment of DIA in 1961, which would serve as the centralizing hub of all military and defense intelligence.

Not only was George Washington the first president of the United States, he was also America’s first intelligence chief. During the revolutionary war, Washington spent more than 10 percent of military funding on intelligence-related activities. These activities included managing individual spies, running spy rings, and establishing special units for the collection of military intelligence. Washington himself established agent networks in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

In the early years of the war, Washington personally supervised the recruitment, training, and running of intelligence agents. The Culper Ring, established in the summer of 1778 in New York and made up of about 20 people, was the most sophisticated of Washington's agent networks, using aliases, coded writing, dead drops and other tradecraft.

Washington strongly emphasized the collection and use of human intelligence to his field commanders and was not above instructing them on the fine points of intelligence tradecraft. For example, on March 28, 1779 Washington wrote to Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall, the commander of two New York brigades who fought with Washington at the Battle of Long Island in 1776 and the Battle of Germantown in 1777. Washington informed McDougall that he had taken it upon himself to warn McDougall’s agent “not to place too much confidence in persons undertaking the office of double spies. The person in the present instance appears to be very sensible, and we should on that account be more than uncommonly guarded until he has given full proofs of his attachment.”

After the war, Maj. George Beckwith, the head of British intelligence operations in the colonies, acknowledged the effectiveness of Washington’s intelligence activities. After returning to England with the defeated British army, London newspapers quoted Beckwith as saying, “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us.”


From George Washington to Major General Alexander McDougall, 25 March 1779

To Major General Alexander McDougall

Head Quarters Middle Brook March 25, 1779

Dear Sir,

I duly received your favour of the 20th instant—Mr H—— has just delivered me that of the 22d—The letter and inclosures referred to in it have not yet come to hand.

I have had a good deal of conversation with Mr H—— He appears to be a sensible man capable of rendering important service; if he is sincerely disposed to do it —From what you say— I am led to hope he is; but nevertheless, if he is really in the confidence of the enemy; as he himself believes to be the case, it will be prudent to trust him with caution and to watch his conduct with a jealous eye.

I always think it necessary to be very circumspect with double spies. Their situation in a manner obliges them to trim a good deal in order to keep well with both sides; and the less they have it in their power to do us mischief, the better; especially if we consider that the enemy can purchase their fidelity at a higher price than we can. It is best to keep them in a way of knowing as little of our true circumstances as possible; and in order that they may really deceive the enemy in their reports, to endeavour in the first place to deceive them I would recommend, that the same rule should be observed in making use of Mr H—— who notwithstanding the most plausible appearances may possibly be more in earnest with the enemy than with us — By doing this we run the less risk and may derive essential benefit. He is gone on to Philadelphia.

Inclosed is a copy of a resolve of Congress of the 15th; which so far as it affects the troops under your command you will be pleased to assist me in executing as speedily as possible. 

With real regard & esteem 

I am D. Sir 

Your most Obedt servt

G. Washington

From George Washington to Major General Alexander McDougall, 28 March 1779

Major General Alexander McDougall

Head Quarters Middle Brook 28th March 1779

Dear Sir

I yesterday Evening was favd with yours of the 21st instant with the several enclosures to which it refers.

H. is gone to Philada and will call upon me in his way back. In my last I took the liberty to drop you a hint upon the subject of the danger of our putting too much confidence in persons undertaking the Office of double Spies. The person alluded to in the present instance appears very sensible, and we should; on that account, be more than commonly guarded until he has given full proofs of his attachment—The letter directed to Genl Haldimand was evidently intended to fall into our Hands. The manner of contriving that, and some other circumstances, make me suspicious that he is as much in the interest of the enemy as in ours. 

I am Dear Sir 

Yours

G. Washington