Foreign and domestic espionage has been in the news a lot this year, but despite the latest technology and intense training, the best performance of American spies is still considered to be the work of six amateurs who were pivotal in winning the American Revolution.
The amazing story of this indispensable group is outlined in "George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution," by Fox News host Brian Kilmeade. Far from highly trained operatives, six unassuming colonists, ranging from a merchant to a tavern owner to a New York socialite, risked life and limb and ultimately reversed the tide of the war.
In fact, their work was so impressive that it is still the gold standard by which all future operatives are measured.
"When I went to (CIA headquarters in) Langley, Va., to see how good they were, they told me, 'Not only were they good, we teach our men and women that we hire today what they learned in the middle of a war with no covert forces training," Kilmeade told WND.
"They were able to able to stop Benedict Arnold from giving away West Point. They stopped a counterfeit ring that was going to make Washington's new country have their money worth nothing; therefore, their forces weren't getting paid and they'd all leave. And they were also able to get the Battle of Yorktown ahead of time," he said.
The "Culper Spy Ring" was so secretive that Washington never even knew who the leader was. Historians didn't figure out it was Robert Townsend until well into the 20th century. There was one female spy, known as Agent 355, who is still unidentified but was critical in exposing the treachery of Benedict Arnold.
"This woman infiltrated the social scene. We know that for sure. She found out where the parties were. She found out that there was a Patriot general about to turn sides and Washington was able to figure out it was Benedict Arnold," Kilmeade said. "If they were unable to unearth this, West Point would have gone to the British, the Hudson would have gone to the British and we don't win the war."
One of the reasons the woman's identity remains a secret is because historians believe the British figured out her role in stopping Arnold and she was killed.
The spy ring was created out of desperation in 1776. After chasing the British out of Boston, Washington's forces were routed badly on Long Island and barely survived to fight another day. At this point, Washington knew he needed more intelligence and needed it on Long Island and in New York City where the British were so heavily concentrated.
The first recruit was Nathan Hale, but, as Kilmeade points out, that didn't end well.
"Washington asked for volunteers to go there and tell them what's going on, to find out the structure of the forces and Nathan Hale put his hand up," said Kilmeade who explained that Washington and others were very skeptical of Hale because he had no covert training and didn't know the local area. Hale insisted he was the right man.
"He said, 'I'm a schoolteacher from Yale. I'm a smart guy. I'll figure it out.' Within a day-and-a-half, he gets hanged on 66th and 3rd in New York City. He's dead," Kilmeade said. "And Washington says, 'I've got to do this right and I can't win without them.'"
Washington then tapped an officer named Benjamin Talmadge to recruit this spy ring, ultimately comprised of Townsend, Agent 355, James Rivington, Abraham Woodhull, Austin Roe and Caleb Brewster. The genius of the network was finding people with plausible reasons for interacting with one or more fellow conspirators on a regular basis.
"They needed someone who had a reason to go to Manhattan and Robert Townsend did," Kilmeade said. "He had a family business there. His house was billeted by the British, so they wanted him out of his house in Oyster Bay anyway. He has a reason to be there, to conduct business and he went in there and did it, at which time he was also able to observe things and write them down.
"He was also able to become a reporter for Rivington's newspaper and interview the very soldiers that were trying to dominate the colonies. He'd print those stories and it would go to Britain, but he would also be able to take that information and give it to Washington," said Kilmeade, who then related the chain of events that moved key intelligence back to Washington.
"Amazingly, they'd be handed off to an agent named Austin Roe, who owned a tavern 55 miles from the city. He'd show up. He'd grab the papers. He had a reason to buy some commerce there because he owned a tavern. He'd buy something from Robert Townsend. In the materials would be this information, and he'd have that perilous ride of 55 miles back to his tavern and from there get it to Caleb Brewster who would row across the sound to get it to Washington on the other side," he said.
The harrowing work was not without its consequences. In addition to the likely murder of Agent 355, Townsend himself was never the same after the war.
"It looks like he had PTSD. He never got his life together afterward. He never really accomplished anything significant. After this war it was so nerve-racking for him, that he never really got his act together," Kilmeade said.
The six spies kept a very low profile. Fellow patriots were stunned later on when Washington stopped at Rivington's newspaper offices to thank a man observers believed was a devout loyalist. Townsend was a no-show at his appointment with Washington. Kilmeade said that quality has carried over to the present generation of heroic Americans.
"They remind me of Americans today when I talk to men and women who serve in war. They don't want the acclaim, even the Congressional Medals of Honor. They don't want to take because they don't want to single themselves out," he said. "They do it for their country. They do it for the cause."