This story is over 5 years old.


The 1960s Snowdens: NSA Agents Who Showed Up in Moscow Bearing Secrets

There's precedent for saying "I'm going on vacation" then showing up in Moscow. Fifty-three years ago, two NSA agents told their bosses they were going on vacation, went to Mexico before slipping off to Havana en route to the Soviet Union, where they...
Ben Richmond
Κείμενο Ben Richmond
Martin and Mitchell meeting the Soviet press, via

Fifty-three years ago a pair of NSA agents pulled a Snowden—they told their bosses they were going on vacation, went to Mexico before slipping off to Havana en route to the Soviet Union, where they surfaced in September 1960. Unlike Snowden, they were deliberate defectors, eager to work for a new government, and to share what they knew.

William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell were cryptographers and chess fans, and after their defection they were portrayed as a couple of homosexual deviants who had been given too much access. By 1963 the NSA was reevaluating its hiring practices, proclaiming—from 2013, quite ironically—that, “no other event has had, or is likely to have in the future, a greater impact on the Agency's security program."


While working for the NSA, Martin and Mitchell, like Snowden (and at 31 and 29, almost exactly the same age), discovered that the American government was clandestinely doing things they found unconscionable—an ostensibly open democracy lurking in the shadows, “intercepting and deciphering of the secret communications of its own allies,” as they put it, as bad as what the Soviet Union was accused of.

Just as when Snowden emerged publicly, it would be an understatement to say that politicians were less than pleased with the cryptographers. President Eisenhower called them traitors. Harry Truman suggested they should be shot.

Francis E. Walter, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, said at least one of the pair was “a notorious homosexual.” The Los Angeles Times linked them to a “Lavender Scare,” accusing them of plotting to fill the federal government with gay turncoats. The 1950s were a simpler time for bigotry.

Not that it actually affects anyone’s patriotism, but there was no evidence that Martin and Mitchell were actually gay. Both left girlfriends behind in America and married women in the Soviet Union. In their departing statement, they cited Soviet women as another upside to their move. “Talents of women are encouraged and utilized to a much greater extent in the Soviet Union than in the United States,” they said. “We feel that this enriches Soviet society and makes Soviet women more desirable as mates.”

Read the rest over at Motherboard.