Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Spying Methods in the American Revolution

Spying Methods in the American Revolution

The American Revolution was one of the most significant wars in modern history. The Revolutionary War wasn't simply significant for establishing the United States or for helping bankrupt and inspire the French Revolution. It was also pivotal in ushering in new technologies, innovations, and strategies in warfare. One of the most important innovations in warfare that the Revolution helped bring about was spying.

And...the man perhaps most responsible for this innovation was none other than General George Washington.

General Washington's espionage strategy is one of the factors that contributed to American victory over the British in the Revolutionary War. And it is an aspect of the war thoroughly examined by author Alexander Rose in George Washington's Spies.

In an article for American Heritage magazine, Thomas Fleming elaborates:

It is commonly understood that without the Commander in Chief’s quick mind and cool judgment the American Revolution would have almost certainly expired in 1776. It is less well known that his brilliance extended to overseeing, directly and indirectly, extensive and very sophisticated intelligence activities against the British.

Ruluff McIntyre puts it even more plainly in an article for Early America: "The misinformation machine created by George Washington was critical to the winning of the Revolutionary War."

At the beginning of the war, America's spying methods were rather "amateurish," writes John Reed for the Valley Forge Historical Society. By 1777, says Reed, spying gained greater finesse.

Are there lessons for America today? In my opinion....yes. One of the reasons the United States has struggled in its Middle Eastern policy generally and in Iraq specifically as been faulty or limited intelligence. The US has simply not done an adequate job in penetrating some of the world's cultures, and, in some cases, has badly mismanaged its intelligence gathering strategies.

General Washington understood how critical accurate intelligence was for his army and how important it was to provide faulty intelligence to the enemy. Yet another example of how learning lessons from the past can help us in the present and the future.

1 comment:

Eric Turner said...

One of the greatest travesty of the Revolution is that the techniques and lessons learned regarding intelligence collection and analysis were not applied to the new U.S. military. The factors for this are two-fold: 1) "spying," as was done in the Culper Spy Ring was still considered less than reputable and "gentlemen" did not admit to doing it. Indeed, the book even states that many of the facets of the spy ring were never uncovered because the members did not publish memoirs or letters about their involvement; and 2) the "disdain and distrust" of standing armies inherent in Whig philosophy resulted in the United States disbanding the Army after the War to the point that in the late 1780s there were only about 63 members in our military. This was quickly remedied. However, the result was that the lessons learned about intelligence were not passed on.

Additionally, intelligence collection was not the same in the 18th century as it is in the 20/21st century. But I won't go into that.

I served in military intelligence for 21 years from 1985-2006 and I can tell you that the loss of intelligence assets in Arabic cultures was a result of the intelligence community depending more and more on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). Human Intelligence (HUMINT) was, for some reason, deemed less reliable. Budgets were increased for technical toys and gadgets and decreased for human sources. This occurred from the late 80s all the way to 9-11, when the government realized their mistake. It takes years to cultivate sources and networks. So the payoff can take years to come.