Intelligence Operations in The American Revolutionary War - Counterintelligence


Probably the first organization under the Articles of Confederation created for counterintelligence purposes was the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, later the Commission. It was made up of a series of groups established in New York between June 1776 and January 1778 to collect intelligence, apprehend British spies and couriers, and examine suspected British sympathizers. In effect, it was created a "secret service" which had the power to arrest, to convict, to grant bail or parole, and to imprison or to deport. A company of militia was placed under its command. The Committee heard over 500 cases involving disloyalty and subversion. John Jay has been called the first chief of American counterintelligence because of his role in the Committee.

Nathanial Sackett and Colonel William Duer were particularly successful in ferreting out British agents, but found their greatest success in the missions of one of the dozen or so agents of their own, Enoch Crosby. Crosby, a veteran of the Continental Army, had been mistaken by a Westchester County Loyalist as being someone who shared his views. He confided to Crosby that a secret enemy military company was being formed and introduced him to the group. Crosby reported the plot to the Committee and was taken with the group. He managed to "escape" and, as directed, infiltrated another secret Tory unit. This unit, including Crosby, was also taken and escaped once more. He repeated the operation at least two more times, before the loyalists started to get wise to his "escaping" and he retired. Crosby was the model for the central character in James Fenimore Cooper's book The Spy (1821), the first espionage novel written in English.

Another successful American agent was Captain David Gray of Massachusetts. Posing as a deserter, Gray entered the service of Colonel Beverly Robinson, a Tory intelligence officer, and became Robinson's courier. As a result, the contents of each of Robinson's dispatches were read by the Americans before their delivery. Gray eventually became the courier for Major Oliver DeLancey, Jr., the head of the British secret service in New York. For two years, Gray, as DeLancey's courier to Canada, successfully penetrated the principal communications link of the British secret service. Upon completing his assignment, Gray returned to the ranks of the Continental Army and his name was struck from the deserter list, where it had placed it at the beginning of the operation.

Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, a senior intelligence officer under Washington, is credited with the capture of Major John André, who preceded DeLancey as chief of the British secret service in New York. Although he declined to discuss the episode in his memoirs, it is said that one Tallmadge's agents had reported to him that Major André was in contact with a "John Anderson" who was expecting the surrender of a major installation. Learning that a certain John Anderson passed through the lines en route to General Benedict Arnold, the commander at West Point, Tallmadge had Anderson apprehended and returned for interrogation. "Anderson" admitted to his true identity (that he was André) and was tried, convicted, and executed as a spy. Arnold, learning that André had been taken and that his own treachery was no doubt was exposed, fled West Point before he could be captured, and joined the British forces.

General Washington demanded effective counterintelligence work from his subordinates. On March 24, 1776, for example, he wrote: "There is one evil I dread, and that is, their spies. I could wish, therefore, the most attentive watch be kept... I wish a dozen or more of honest, sensible and diligent men, were employed... in order to question, cross-question etc., all such persons as are unknown, and cannot give an account of themselves in a straight and satisfactory line.... I think it a matter of importance to prevent them from obtaining intelligence of our situation." Washington occasionally had to deal with rogue intelligence officers in his own ranks who used their positions for personal gain or undertook unauthorized or illegal operations that might have compromised parts of his intelligence apparatus. Once Washington discovered that two of his agents who supposedly were collecting intelligence on Long Island actually were "mere plundering parties." He set up a special team to investigate and arrest the renegade operatives.

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