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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/4/10

America's First Spymaster

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Reprinted from Consortium News

Having grown up in eastern Massachusetts not far from Lexington and Concord, I always found the Revolutionary War's heroes familiar and fascinating, including some whose names are little remembered except by historians.

And my later interest in intelligence activities caused me to focus on one extraordinary patriot in particular, Dr. Joseph Warren, a man who could be viewed as America's first spymaster, although he was much more than that, a leader as influential in the war's early days and as selfless as any figure to follow him in that long historic struggle.

Though involved with the Sons of Liberty and a member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, a key body in organizing the revolution, Warren also moved within Boston's respected society as a physician and surgeon. Indeed, that may have put him in place to recruit one of the most important and still mysterious spies in American history.

In the years leading up to the start of hostilities on April 19, 1775, Warren worked with fellow patriot Paul Revere in constructing a remarkable intelligence network for its time, a loosely knit collection of sympathetic citizens who uncovered information about the British garrisoned in Boston. The network also included riders who could spread alarms quickly through the countryside.

On another level of intelligence, Warren and Revere oversaw an effective system of propaganda, highlighting excesses committed by the British and pioneering the use of fast clipper ships to distribute their side of the story (based on strong documentary evidence) to other countries, even getting crucial news to England before the British Army's own reports arrived.

That intelligence network would be tested in spring 1775 as the British prepared for what King George III hoped would be a decisive strike against the rebellious New Englanders, including the arrest of some top leaders. However, the patriot intelligence network learned of those plans even before they reached British General Thomas Gage.

So, by early April 1775, Warren and Revere were the only two major patriot leaders not to have fled Boston. John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were at the top of England's enemies list, were hiding out in Lexington, where their whereabouts had been detected by Gage's own intelligence network.

But the Warren-Revere network always seemed a step ahead. Keeping a close tab on British movements, the patriots learned two key facts, that British agents had scouted routes toward Concord and that British longboats were lowered into Boston Harbor on April 6.

On April 8, expecting an imminent attack, Warren prepared an urgent warning to the patriots in Concord, telling them that "we daily expect a Tumult" and that Concord would be the target with an assault possibly the next day. Revere carried Warren's message by horseback.

Although Warren's date was incorrect, the patriots were now on the alert to the British intent and expected the strike to come soon.

On his way back to Boston, Revere had the prescient concern that the British might try to seal off Boston before their attack and thus he devised a signal with patriots across the Charles River in Charleston that would be used as a back-up. Lanterns would be hung from Boston's Old North Church, one if the attack came by land, two if by sea.

But Gage also was not without his sources. He soon learned from loyalist spies that Revere had carried Warren's message to Concord. So, Gage undertook what we would call a counter-intelligence operation.

Readying for his April 19 march on Lexington and Concord, Gage dispatched mounted patrols of 20 officers and sergeants into the countryside on April 18 to cut off warnings carried by American riders trying to spread the alarm to local militias.

Cat and Mouse

The final chapter of this intelligence cat-and-mouse game would determine whether the British would retain an element of surprise or whether Warren and Revere could ensure that the Redcoats would be met by an armed citizenry.

By the afternoon of April 18, a bustle of British activity in Boston had been detected by local residents sympathetic to the patriots. Reports were flowing into Warren's make-shift intelligence headquarters, his medical office.

As described by historian David Hackett Fischer in Paul Revere's Ride, "In the highly charged atmosphere of Boston, scarcely an hour passed without some new rumor or alarm. Doctor Warren had become highly skilled in diagnosing these political symptoms.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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