- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005


By Thomas B. Allen

National Geographic, $16.95, 184 pages, illus.


If you have a pre-teen you want to coax into serious reading, then “George Washington, Spymaster” will be a welcome gift. That is if you can bear to hand it over if you should dip into it yourself.

Much of the drama of the American Revolution saga lies in the fact that a collection of farmers, artisans, and laborers could take on the world’s undisputed superpower of the day and win independence through a grueling, disaster-plagued war on our own home ground.

Initially ill-trained and laughably equipped, there was one area where Washington’s Continental Army was superior. Author Thomas B. Allen quotes Major George Beckwith, the head of British intelligence operations at the end of the war: “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!”

In a time when intelligence and national security is front and center as a public issue, this book sets an important historical marker. Washington, and, it turns out, many of our Founding Fathers had a surprisingly sophisticated grasp of the craft of intelligence. By using their hard won insights into where the British were and what they intended to do, they preserved their ragged resources and used them to killing advantage.

To the point, much of what Washington did to get intelligence is trade craft as up to date as today’s headlines. He put spies behind the lines, he used disinformation about his own plans, and he waged propaganda warfare against the redcoat troops and against the British people back home. There were codes and ciphers, dead drops, double agents and counterintelligence ops galore.

Thomas B. Allen writes about this with considerable experience. He is the author of 30 books and a prolific writer for National Geographic. With co-author Norman Polmar, he has produced such standard intelligence titles as “Code-name Downfall;” “Merchants of Treason;” and “Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage.”

This is no kid’s book, make no mistake. National Geographic is trying to create a new genre — the first reader’s book. This is a book that makes no concession to the reader’s age but rather presents a solid tale in adult language and lets the story carry the day. There are no platitudes or bits of moral instruction that so irritate the younger reader. Indeed, this is a good starting place for an older reader who is embarking in nonfiction where English is his second language.

So how did George Washington get to be such a spy master? Mr. Allen takes us back to another war when American colonists considered themselves patriotic Englishmen under threat from the French and their Indian allies on the Ohio frontier. Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie commissioned Washington, not yet then 21, to journey into the Ohio country to check out rumors that the French and Indians were rousting out English settlers and building fortifications in an ominous incursion into British territory.

Washington already had a reputation as a land surveyor for Lord Fairfax and was an experienced traveler in this perilous country and in a remarkable 78-day journey made it to near where Pittsburgh now stands and back to Williamsburg where his first hand observations about French intentions to launch what turned into the French and Indian War. By the end of the war Washington had acquired a reputation as the most skilled colonial military figure.

Even though we know the outcome in advance, Mr. Allen tells a real ripping yarn about Washington and his spies during the Revolutionary War itself. The codes, the agents in place, Nathan Hale and Major Andre, signals using washing on a line,

intercepted letters and duplicity abound. Through it all is Washington, who knew what he needed to find out and knew how to set about getting it.

But that was Washington. What about the rest of colonial America? It turns out that even in those early years Americans were skilled at the subterfuge and techniques of information management to a high degree. This was out of sheer necessity, as Mr. Allen notes. Post riders often dumped mail onto tavern tables where any casual observer could peek at correspondence. Government too was intrusive in private affairs to an astonishing degree. The near betrayal of Paul Revere’s famed ride is a story in itself.

Committees of Correspondence sprang up throughout the colonies so that the rising patriot movement could communicate securely. So too, America’s first foreign station chief, Benjamin Franklin, operated a textbook intelligence operation first in London from 1757 through 1775 when he was ostensibly a lobbyist for many of the colonial grievances. From 1777 through 1783 Franklin ran covert military operations against the English coast with one hand while with the other he inveigled first French military aid for the patriot army and finally the crucial French military intervention that insured Washington’s victory at Yorktown.

By the end, the reader can’t help a feeling that the British never really knew what was going on. But Washington did, and that was the difference.

James Srodes is the author of “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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