George Washington — Soldier, Statesman… and Spymaster
Every year, schoolchildren celebrate President’s Day (and its associated day off). In elementary school classrooms across the country, kids make powdered wigs out of cotton balls, color images of George Washington on a horse or maybe build Abraham Lincoln’s in a log cabin our of popsicle sticks, while their teachers read them excerpts of the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.
Depending on where they grew up, Americans may remember this holiday differently. Appropriate for our federalist system of government, states observe the holiday differently. Some recognize Washington’s Birthday, some Presidents’ Day, some refer to Washington and Lincoln, and at least one also honors Thomas Jefferson specifically, by name.
But according to the federal government, the third Monday in February is officially George Washington’s Birthday. (OK, OK, George Washington was actually born on Feb. 22, 1732, but stick with me. There’s an entire backstory on how the holiday came to be that you can read about via the National Archives.)
One of the most famous myths about Washington is that of the cherry tree. Nearly all Americans know it: as a child he cut down his father’s prized cherry tree with a hatchet. When confronted, he respond, with a phrase any grade schooler can recite: “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” The tale speaks to Washington’s inherent virtue, and further entrenches him in legend as the ideal for an American leader, a worthy “father” of our country.
Children rarely learn that our honorable and honest founding father won the war for independence not only because of his military prowess, but also because of his ability to deceive. George Washington was many things during his life: farmer, dog lover, athlete, surveyor, soldier, President… the list seems endless. But many forget or never learn he was also a master spy.
We have built a national mythology around Washington as a fearless leader and humble servant. And according to all accounts, he was those things. Nonetheless, many of the stories we learn about him were made up after his death — like the cherry tree story. They are legends and myths attributed to an already great man who needed no embellishment.
This story though? You can believe it.
Washington’s earliest experience with spycraft came during his service as a young officer in the French and Indian War. He learned tactics and techniques from the same British army he would later fight in the Revolutionary War.
Today, America’s Intelligence Community is made up of 17 agencies and elements, all serving our national leaders — diplomats, warfighters, the President — in different ways. In the British army of the 1700s, if an officer required intelligence, it was generally up to him to develop his own network. Washington believed so strongly in the value of good intelligence that he spent approximately 10 percent of his budget on it.
Later, as an American revolutionary, Washington built and ran the notorious (at least to the British Crown) gang of spies known as the Culper Spy Ring. He recruited many of these spies himself. In order to protect these intelligence assets, he often took care to avoid ever learning their real identities. There are many Culper Ring spies whose identities remain unknown to this day.
The price for espionage in the Revolutionary War was high, for revolutionaries and loyalists alike. Caught and convicted spies were usually executed. Names like Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold conjure up images of the gallows (though, Arnold, the most well known British spy of the American Revolution, avoided capture and later became a British general).
The Culper Ring is eponymous with two of its spies’ cover names used heavily in correspondence, Samuel Culper, Sr. and Samuel Culper, Jr. These were in fact the false identities of Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, respectively. Their pseudonyms were used in Culper Ring letters so that their espionage activities were never connected with their real identities
In the real world, they went about their normal colonial lives, using their social and professional status to feed valuable intelligence to Washington in order to aid the revolutionaries’ cause. Townsend, for example, was a merchant who ran a local coffee shop, and another Culper Ring affiliate, Hercules Mulligan (who has gained recent notoriety as a character in the musical Hamilton) was a tailor for British military officers.
It’s important also to note that many women contributed to Washington’s intelligence activities. Women like Anna Strong, who developed a “clothesline code,” (via which messages could be shared with Culper ring confederates through the hanging of certain items on a clothesline as part of a per-arranged signal) on were critical to the success of intelligence operations. One woman, who died in prison, is still only known to history as Agent 355.
Much of the tradecraft we associate with espionage today — dead drops, enciphered messages, code names — these were all used by the Culper Ring. In particular, Washington was keen on having a way to securely send messages. One of those ways was invisible ink.
Some early invisible inks were acidic in nature and subtly ate away at the fibers of paper so that the recipient could read it under heat. Washington wanted something more secure, and enlisted James Jay, a doctor in England and brother of patriot John Jay, to develop a new “sympathetic stain.”
A sympathetic stain is written with one chemical and revealed with a different one. If someone received a letter including secret messages, they would use this secret chemical and rub it on the letter to reveal the hidden text.
Some in the Culper Ring believed the British also knew the chemical to reveal this sympathetic stain. Thus, the spies developed their own Culper Code Book, where numbers stood in place of various people, places and actions. For example, 727 was New York City. And Agent 711? Washington himself.
Washington’s tradecraft was excellent for its day, but what really won the war was his ability to deceive the British. One of the most effective tactics for our young Revolutionary Army was what we now call military deception, or MILDEC. Washington knew that his letters were often, if not always, intercepted so he often took the opportunity to plant false information.
Washington is know to have exaggerated troop numbers in orders that he knew were likely be intercepted. He went so far as to place entirely false supply orders to make the British believe American forces were preparing to attack, or that entire encampments were being built in key locations.
Military deception was an important part of the war’s decisive conflict, the Battle of Yorktown. Washington wanted the British army to think the patriots were planning attack New York City, when in reality the Americans and the French were targeting Yorktown and the Chesapeake Bay. Washington built faux “encampments” outside New York City and when his plans to move on the city “inadvertently” fell into the wrong hands, the ill-prepared British army occupying Yorktown was overwhelmed by a Continental Army twice its size.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But that’s not really the end of the story. After his inauguration, President Washington asked for the new nation’s first intelligence budget. After three years in office, this “secret service fund” fund grew to $1 million. This may not seem like by today’s standards, but it was, at the time, 12 percent of the budget for the fledgling government of the new United States of America.
The espionage budget was also allowed to be kept secret from Congress to protect the missions undertaken by the executive branch (today our top line intelligence budget figures are public knowledge). This investment would prove indispensable for future presidents. Shortly after the fund’s creation, Washington’s successors, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison each tapped into the fund for covert international missions to further U.S. interests.
Washington’s confidence in the power of good intelligence set up our young nation for military and diplomatic success. While the general public may be less familiar with George Washington’s history as our nation’s first spymaster, the U.S. Intelligence Community still honors this important aspect of our first president’s legacy, with the George Washington Spymaster Award.
Given to career intelligence professionals whose “visionary leadership, invaluable contributions, and unmatched accomplishments have revolutionized the IC and fundamentally transformed intelligence operations for ensuring the preservation of our national security,” The George Washington Spymaster Award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Intelligence Community.
The medal itself is a testament to George Washington. The compass that forms the medal’s centerpiece is the adopted symbol of the intelligence community. Inside it is Washington’s family coat of arms. The blue signifies the allegiance of the Culper Spy Ring, and the silver represents the assessment of truth.
The back features an inscription adopted from Washington’s family motto: “Exitu Acta Probat”. Translated, it means “The ends justify the means.” Washington added it to the coat of arms to pay homage to his place in the Revolutionary War.
The medal features a flying griffin rising from the coronet, used on Washington’s crest throughout his life. The griffin symbolizes wisdom, vengeance and strength.
The nature of Spymasters Award winners’ accomplishments means, like the Culper Ring’s famous female agent 355, the general public will never know their names.
One woman whose contributions to the Intelligence Community will not remain secret is recent Spymaster awardee, Stephanie O’Sullivan, the recently-retired Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence.
O’Sullivan started her career as a technical whiz kid, using her degree in civil engineering build various collections platforms for the intelligence community — most of which are still highly classified. O’Sullivan retired in January, but her legacy of technical proficiency and personal leadership lives on.
Her career in the IC spans from the Office of Naval Intelligence to the CIA where she moved up the ranks to become the Director of Science and Technology, then to the number three job at the agency: Associate Deputy Director. It was from that position, that she was tapped to become the second-highest-ranking intelligence professional in the nation (and the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Intelligence Community).
In part, her Spymaster Award citation reads, “Ms. O’Sullivan personally guided the Intelligence Community’s efforts toward an integrated information technology environment and advanced the research, development, and deployment of cutting-edge collection systems.” These technologies have changed the way the IC does business.
“The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent,” wrote Washington in a letter in 1777. "…For upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated.”
While the Intelligence Community has changed since George Washington’s time, we have remained true to his drive to improve methods to obtain the best information possible, protect our people and enable our national leaders to make the most informed decisions possible in the interest of our national security.