George Washington, 1789-97

Our First Line of Defense ("Presidential Reflections on US Intelligence") (U)(Portrait)


There was no centralized intelligence organization in any modern conception of the word during the American Revolution. Both the Americans and British employed agents to secure information on troop deployments and strengths, and there were officers specifically charged with intelligence functions, although almost without exception these functions were added to officers' regular line duties. Thus, Maj. John Andre handled intelligence matters for Britain's General Clinton in New York and when Andre became Adjutant General of the British Armies in America, he continued to conduct certain special intelligence cases, including the defection of Gen. Benedict Arnold from West Point.

General Forman, an American line officer in New Jersey, was Washington's intelligence chief in that area for a time. In connection with his intelligence activities, General Forman wrote Governor Livingston of New Jersey in February 1782 as follows:

    "I PRESUME YOUR EXCELLENCY is not unacquainted that I am at the particular request of General Washington imployed in obtaining intelligence respecting the enemies movements at New York &c. By the Generals Letter to me of the 25 Inst. he in a very pointed manner asks my particular exertions as affairs at this time demand the best Intelligence."


General Washington kept closely informed on all intelligence matters and was perhaps the most able American intelligence officer prior to Gen. William Donovan, Director of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. General Washington often levied intelligence requirements on his intelligence officers and then made his own estimates of the military situation based on the evidence they acquired. He directed what we now call psychological warfare campaigns and had a fine feel for intelligence activities.

    "THE NECESSITY OF PROCURING good Intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged--all that remains for me to add, is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends in most Enterprizes of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned and promising a favourable issue."


Gen. George Washington, Letter to Col. Elias Dayton, 26 July 1777
    "I HAVE RECEIVED YOUR LETTER of the 4th, containing an apology for sending an agreeable piece of Intelligence which you have since discover'd to be false; mistakes of this kind are not uncommon and most frequently happen to those whose zeal and sanguineness allow no room for scepticism when anything favourable to their country is plausibly related."


Gen. George Washington, Letter to Daniel Clymer, 11 November 1777


American authorities in New Jersey seized three of General Washington's best spies under the misapprehension that they were British agents. These prisoners could not disclose their true role. Washington learned, however, of their capture and wrote the Governor of New Jersey for their release.

    "UPON THESE CONSIDERATIONS I hope you will put a stop to the prosecution, unless other matters appear against them. You must be well convinced, that it is indispensibly necessary to make use of these means to procure intelligence. The persons employed must bear the suspicion of being thought inimical, and it is not in their power to assert their innocence, because that would get abroad and destroy the confidence which the Enemy puts in them."


Gen. George Washington, Letter to Gov. William Livingston, 20 January 1778
    "I THANK YOU FOR THE TROUBLE you have taken in forwarding the intelligence which was inclosed in your Letter of the 11th of March. It is by comparing a variety of information, we are frequently enabled to investigate facts, which were so intricate or hidden, that no single clue could have led to the knowledge of them in this point of view, intelligence becomes interesting which but from its connection and collateral circumstances, would not be important."


Gen. George Washington, Letter to James Lovell, 1 April 1782




Historical Document
Posted: Mar 19, 2007 01:33 PM
Last Updated: Jul 07, 2008 01:56 PM