A Look Back … George Washington: America's First Military Intelligence Director
George Washington – who some call the “First DCI” (Director of Central Intelligence) – was a key practitioner of military intelligence during the Revolutionary War more than 230 years ago. In fact, General Washington was more deeply involved in intelligence operations than any American general-in-chief until Dwight Eisenhower during World War II. His skills in the "black arts" helped secure key victories, hastened the end of hostilities, and significantly contributed to the United States' winning its independence from Great Britain.
Manager of Military Intelligence
George Washington was a skilled military intelligence manager. He recruited and debriefed Tory and Patriot sources, developed espionage networks, 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.
During the war, he spent more than 10 percent of his military funds on intelligence operations. Military setbacks around New York early in the war 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. One-hundred-and-thirty soldiers and 20 officers comprised the “Knowlton's Rangers." This unit was 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 unit.
Washington's first venture at using an infiltration agent ended in failure when the ill-suited and poorly trained Nathan Hale was captured and executed.
Washington was more successful in other ventures, however. For example, he received vital intelligence from stay-behind agents, such as Hercules Mulligan. Mulligan 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 British plans to capture the American commander-in-chief and to a planned incursion into Pennsylvania.
Lt. Lewis J. Costigin was another source in New York. He 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; he smuggled the information out through underground Patriot communication networks.
Washington vs. General Sir Henry Clinton
The most elaborate and productive network that Washington oversaw was the Culper Ring in New York City and 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. Washington needed intelligence on Clinton's forces and intentions and ordered Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge to establish an espionage net.
The Culper Ring eventually had about 20 members who either reported on British activities on Manhattan Island or conveyed the intelligence out of the city 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.
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 bogus 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 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.
First in War, First in Peace
Contemporaries regarded George Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." He also was first in the early history of American intelligence. The image of Washington as spymaster contrasts vividly with textbook portrayals of him as "the Father of Our Country," but the two roles are historically connected.
Without General Washington's intelligence-aided victories on the battlefield, there would have been no independence, no United States, no Constitution, and no President Washington. And while it is hard to gauge the precise contribution that intelligence operations made to his victories, the Revolutionary War would have lasted longer, cost more lives, and caused more social and economic upheaval without all of the clandestine activities that were conducted under his direction.