Other Spy Techniques

Dead Drops:

Dead Drop in a tree

A common procedure used by spies to pass information to their contacts is through the use of a “dead drop.”   The spy places the message in a prearranged unattended location, often hidden, and leaves it.  Later, his or her compatriot will come and collect the message.  Using a “dead drop” means that the spy and their contact do not meet face to face, and may never know who each other actually is.  This that if one of them is captured by the enemy, they cannot compromise the rest of the communication chain.  “Dead drops” have been used since antiquity and continue to be used today.  We have even turned “dead drops” into a sport with the modern game of GEOCACHING.

Hidden Compartments:

Smugglers hide in a book

Spies sometimes need to transport things in secret through enemy territory. Simply refusing to comply with searches at border crossings or military checkpoints will immediately raise suspicion to they must find a way to allow themselves to be searched while keeping the messages or other contraband safe. To accomplish this, they often employ the smugglers’ strategy of creating a hidden compartment that is not likely to be searched by the enemy.


Son’s of Liberty Disguised as Indians

If you are routinely going places where the enemy discusses, either intentionally or unintendedly, matters of military or political significance, you may wish to remain anonymous.  To do this, spies employ disguises.  The most common disguise is to simply change your clothes.  Sometimes soldiers sent on reconnaissance missions would wear civilian clothes such as when John Andre met Benedict Arnold before his capture at West Point. Sometimes spies wore the clothing of the opposite sex in order to hid their identity.  The other common practice was to change the way your face looks by growing or shaving a beard, applying make-up, or wearing a wig.  There is, of course, no more famous disguise during the American Revolution than the Sons of Liberty dressing as Indians during the Boston Tea Party and effectively creating a screen of deniability around their vandalism.

Exploiting Potential Turncoats:

Benedict Arnold

All spying tools and techniques have little worth unless you have a reliable source of information.  A great deal of useful information can be acquired passive observation.  Troop counts and movements, rumors, and observations of the comings and goings in the enemy camp can give you insights on what they plan to do but the best sources of information come from INSIDE the army on which you are spying.  Spies need informants or people who are willing share information about the army’s capabilities and plans.  The only question is how do you get people to divulge their secrets? 

There were many men and women recruited to spy on behalf of one or the other army during the American Revolution.  Hercules Mulligan attached himself to the British Army as a tailor cleaning and repairing British uniforms in New York.  Because he came into contact with may senior officers, he was able to smuggle information out to Washington.  Anne Bates disguised herself as a peddler and became a camp follower of the Continental Army in New Jersey smuggling information about American troop movements and preparations back to the British. Of course, there is no more infamous patriot turned spy than Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was respected hero in the Continental Army having waged war on the British in Canada, taking Montreal, and defeating the British flotilla on Lake George, then literally snatched victory from the British at Saratoga.  Arnold was trusted and respected by George Washington and should have been remembered as a hero of the Revolution but Arnold was turned by John Andre the infamous British spymaster. 

Arnold’s plan to hand over West Point to the British – part of a larger plot to ensure British victory in the war – was thwarted when Andre was caught by an American patrol. Andre was hanged as a spy in early October, but before that he gave a full confession, naming Arnold. Arnold managed to escape to the British side before he was caught.  What caused Arnold to turn against his revolutionary comrades?  He was certainly an almost irresistible mark for Andre and he was easily recruited by exploiting his dissatisfaction in the way he as treated by the Continental Congress and the Army.  Spy handlers recruit agents by exploiting perceived weaknesses in their targets based on Money, Ideology, and Ego. 

When it comes to money, by the time Arnold was considering his plot, he was in dire financial straits. He had remarried after the death of his first wife, but only after he had to convince the woman’s father that he was wealthy enough for the marriage – in part by buying a mansion that Arnold could not afford and lived well beyond his means.  A longtime critic of Arnold once wrote, “Money is this man’s god, and to get enough of it, he would sacrifice his country.”  In a letter to Andre in July 1780, Arnold offered to do just that by turning over West Point for 20,000 pounds – approximately $4.5 million today.

Arnold also had apparently lost faith in the revolution’s ideology.  He claimed to have considered the revolutionary cause lost and believed that a swift British victory to be the most humane outcome.  “If I could buy this peace with my own blood, if by giving the other leg I could obtain triumph over my enemies and peace for my country; nay, were it not for my wife… were it not for her and the boys, my life might freely go,” he is said to have told Andre at their fateful meeting.

Last but certainly not least was ego.  Historical accounts are littered with the ways in which Arnold felt he had been wronged – from being repeatedly passed over for promotions, to the failure of others to praise him sufficiently for his early revolutionary battlefield victories.  Arnold held a strong desire for revenge against General Lee and the Continental Congress and Andre gave him the perfect opportunity to get even. 

During his meetings with Arnold, Andre repeatedly reminding the aging military officer how the system had wronged him and how much more appreciated he would be by the British.  But there was a twisted ending for Arnold, who didn’t find much more appreciation for his greatness on the British side than that of the colonials. In the end, he died in “relative obscurity.”

%d bloggers like this: