July 10

The Art of Spying


The Art of Spying

The Art of Spying

One of warfare’s most valuable tools is espionage. Intelligence about one’s adversary is critical to success. But is spying an art or technique? Maybe it’s a little of both. In ancient China, the great military tactician and theorist Sun Tzu’s grand treatise The Art of War, included a chapter devoted to the importance of intelligence. He wrote:

“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer,

and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.”

An earlier blog, The Return of the Cold War Spy Thriller, highlighted the perception between observation and actual espionage. The craft of spying has existed since the dawn of warfare and empire building.

Global History of Intelligence Gathering and Spy Networks

In Rome, the Frumentarii ranged across the Empire, gathering info on potential enemies or scoping battle sites. While in Japan, ninjas often gauged an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses as well as carrying out assassinations of leaders of rival warlords. And in the Americas, the Aztecs employed the quimitchin, secret agents who lived among the enemy, uncovering their vulnerabilities.

The Bible includes the stories of Joshua and Caleb, two of the twelve spies sent by Moses to reconnoiter the Promised Land before they would enter it. It also includes the story of Rahab, who lived in the city of Jericho prior to arrival of the Israelites in the year 1400 BC. She aided the Israelite spies with intelligence-gathering efforts leading to the fall of Jericho.

 In Japan, ninjas were the primary means of learning an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses as well as carrying out assassinations of leaders of rival warlords.

Spy Techniques: Origination

Many historians credit Francis Walsingham with establishing some of the spy-craft techniques common to espionage. Working for Queen Elizabeth I, he developed things like cryptography, code breaking, and general intelligence gathering from across Europe.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, most European powers were developing ways to keep tabs on their neighbors. Industrial espionage became necessary as no country wanted to be surprised by a potential enemy’s new weapon system or military advantage.

In the American Revolution, George Washington was keenly aware of the invaluable aid that good intelligence could render. But using single spies was time consuming, inefficient, and dangerous. Washington learned this after the loss of Nathan Hale, who was executed by the British for espionage early in the war. Washington recognized he needed a network.

Spy Networks

Washington found the answer in one of Hale’s college classmates: Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge had an extensive network of contacts in New York, Connecticut, and Long Island. He was instrumental in creating the Culper Gang, named in part after Culpeper County in Virginia where Washington had served as a surveyor early in life.


The Gang operated mostly on Long Island and Connecticut, and was tasked with monitoring the activities of the British Army. Key operatives included Robert Townsend — who operated in plain sight as a British loyalist — and Anna Smith Strong, a New York woman.

Townsend sent coded messages in invisible ink to Austin Roe, a tavern owner in Strong's town. Roe passed the notes to Abraham Woodall, who arranged to leave them at prearranged sites. But it was Strong, whose simple, but highly effective, system of hanging laundry in a certain order, indicated to Talmadge, where to pick up the message. The art of spying! This helped to keep the Continental Army informed of British troop and ship movements as well as other information.

Coming Soon!

In our next post, we’ll look at the development of modern spy networks. If you like an adrenaline injected thriller, with more twists and turns than a roller coaster, focus your spyglass on my new novel, Deep Plant!    

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About the Author

Storyteller... weaving a tapestry of imagination through the lens of our collective humanity. What does this mean? Everyone is on the road of life with different experiences or narratives. Each of us has a story. What's yours?

Jack Bethel

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