Once Upon Today: Two NSA Defectors Head for Russia


For those who shocked by Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia, he’s following a path set by William Martin and Bernon Mitchell … once upon today.

On June 25, 1960, National Security Agency cryptographers William Martin and Bernon Mitchell left for a vacation in Mexico. Or at least that’s what they told the NSA. In fact they went from Mexico to Havana and then boarded a freighter for Russia. After six weeks the Pentagon put two and two together, and on August 5 announced that the two had probably defected. The two men confirmed that in a news conference in Moscow a month later.

The speculation about Martin and Mitchell’s motives immediately turned to sex, as the our nation was founded in part by Puritans and Puritanism is, H.L. Mencken’s pithy phrase, “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” The two were bachelors, and friends, and they went on vacation and defected together. So clearly they were gay and that meant the government should step up efforts to remove all gays and lesbians from national security positions.

Except Martin and Mitchell weren’t gay:

After interviewing more than 450 individuals about the twosome’s character, habits, and sex lives – right down to the skin rash on Martin’s stomach – the NSA, in a 1961 report, could find no conclusive evidence the two men were gay. “Martin and Mitchell were known to be close friends and somewhat anti-social, but no one had any knowledge of a homosexual relationship between them,” investigators reported. Both, in fact, had American girlfriends, and Martin married a Russian woman four months after his arrival there. Mitchell also wed later.

The same recently-declassified records show that both men soon decided their defection had been a mistake. As for the real motives behind their actions, another Mencken quote springs to mind:

All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. […] The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

Mencken’s cynicism suggests he thought himself a “superior man.” So did Martin and Mitchell, according to an NSA internal investigation:

In 1961, an NSA report called them “close friends and somewhat anti-social,” “egotistical, arrogant and insecure young men whose place in society was much lower than they believed they deserved,” with “greatly inflated opinions concerning their intellectual attainments and talents.”

If those descriptions were true, it’s puzzling that another NSA report two years later found “no clear motive” for their defection … unless you read “no clear motive” to mean ‘no conclusive evidence they were homosexual lovers, secret communists, or paid agents,’ as those seem to be the only motives the NSA considered.

Apparently the Martin-Mitchell investigators hadn’t read Mencken. Neither, apparently, had the folks who conducted Edward Snowden’s background checks before he was hired at the CIA and later the NSA contractor Booz-Allen. Snowden’s comments since his defection are ripe with Mencken’s view of government as “a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him.”

The same can be said of Snowden’s principal interlocutor.

Yes, we can and should debate NSA programs like PRISM, and demand better oversight and a more transparent process for FISA warrants. But we cannot premise that debate on the cynical, narcissistic view that government exists as a conspiracy to oppress and cripple us. Mencken’s “superior man” … isn’t.

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