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Lessons from the History of American Intelligence


Published February 3, 2022

America has always relied on intelligence operations to enhance its national security. In the midst of the American Revolution, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin conducted elaborate intelligence operations that helped win the war. Now, more than ever, America’s position in the world demands effective intelligence operations.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why are intelligence operations so important to America’s national security?
  2. How have intelligence operations influenced American history?

Additional resources:

  • Read about Amy Zegart’s new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence, here.
  • Watch “Why Cyber Is Different,” with Amy Zegart, via PolicyEd. Available here.
  • Watch “How Cyber Attacks Threaten Our Security” on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

Intelligence operations have played a critical role in the defense of our country from its earliest days, alerting our leaders to potential threats and giving us an advantage over our adversaries.


Take George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and our other Founding Fathers - while they're primarily remembered as the creators of a bold new democracy, they were also cunning spymasters who conducted elaborate intelligence operations that helped win the American Revolution.


As Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington employed many intelligence schemes to protect his forces, confuse his adversaries, and gain crucial advantages.


During the brutal winter at Valley Forge, Washington wrote reports about non-existent infantry and cavalry regiments — betting these phony documents would fall into British hands.


This scheme convinced the British that the American forces were too strong to attack — preventing a catastrophe.


Near the end of the war in northern New Jersey, Washington ordered the construction of brick bake ovens - an important source food and a telltale sign that troops were hunkering down.


This led the British to believe that Washington's men were preparing to attack New York.


In reality, his troops were marching south to Yorktown unsuspected, enabling them to defeat Lord Cornwallis's troops in the last major battle of the war.


Meanwhile in Paris, Benjamin Franklin used his printing trade to wage a covert propaganda campaign from his basement.


He published deceptive articles and even forged an issue of a Boston newspaper to incite European and British opponents of the war.


Intelligence operations helped create America in the eighteenth century, secure it in the nineteenth, and champion a new international order in the twentieth.


And in the twenty-first century, it's more important than ever that our leaders are operating with the information they need.


Whether it's detecting physical threats like terrorism, or preventing cyber attacks and election interference, America's position in the world demands effective intelligence operations.