Peter Earnest, founding executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., talks about spycraft tools and methods used during the Revolutionary War and George Washington’s legacy as the father of American intelligence.
Q: George Washington is considered to be one of the founders of American spycraft. What did he do to earn this legacy?
A: Washington is considered the father of American intelligence because he had a very keen sense of intelligence, of what it is and how to use it. He readily embraced gathering intelligence because he was commanding a very meager force. Great Britain had the most powerful military in the world, and they were here in a colony dealing with these colonials, who they looked down on. The Americans were the insurgents. The “war of the flea” is a phrase that’s used when a small force is battling an overwhelmingly large one, and that’s what Washington was up against. So he had to make the most of what he had. Interestingly, Washington recruited spies personally and questioned them personally about their operation. He didn’t just push it down for someone else to do.
Q: What are some examples of spycraft tools that were used by the Americans during the Revolutionary War?
A: Typically, tradecraft is for spies to communicate with their masters. In other words, Washington recruited people like [Ben] Tallmadge to recruit other people, to create what we might now think of as a cell. And those people have to have a way to report their intelligence back. So they used things like writing in invisible ink, codes, leaving messages in hidden places, what you might call dead drops. These are the ways that spies communicated back and forth or got their reports to their masters.
Q: Is there one particular form of spycraft that proved to be the most effective during the war?
A: The main technology for collecting intelligence in the period of the revolution was using spies. Today that would be called human intelligence. There was no overhead reconnaissance back then, no NSA. The main thing that people did was recruit people and have those people pretend to be on the other side. You had what was almost a civil war in the revolution — a lot of people were sympathetic to the Tories and weren’t for breaking away, while others weren’t. That kind of thing is what divides families and creates a breeding ground for people’s loyalties to go to one side or another.
Q: What are some of the ways that Washington recruited his spies? How did he know who he could trust?
A: There were people who volunteered to spy on the British and presented themselves as Loyalists. You also have people called walk-ins, somebody who walks in, as it were, and volunteers. There was a degree of networking. The American side had local knowledge of the towns and families, and they relied on that.
A: The things I just talked about — enciphered messages, dead drops, codes, assigning numbers to each other, all the means of keeping the cell from being broken or identified — are all pretty classic stuff that was used before the revolution and right up through today. The British had a long history of engaging in intelligence collection and running agents and spies. The Americans barely knew much. Washington had limited military experience, and the people who were often collaborating with Washington, like Sons of Liberty, were often lawyers, doctors, radiomen. They weren’t people with military academy backgrounds.
Q: Can you provide an example of Washington using spycraft to gain an advantage during the war?
A: George Washington and the others knew they didn’t have the numbers or weapons to beat the British in a set-piece battle. Therefore, they resorted to what today is considered insurgent tactics. Like the raid on Trenton: Washington got information from a spy that the head of the Hessians in Trenton was a drinker. On Christmas Eve, they went in the dead of night, crossed the river, and attacked when they had a maximum advantage. They weren’t trying to bring about set-piece battles — they were doing what insurgents do.