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.”
Like Snowden—and at 31 and 29 almost exactly the same age—while working for the NSA, Martin and Mitchell 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 and 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.”
Unlike Snowden, however, Martin and Mitchell were glad to leave the United States, and defected to Russia. While it was “a difficult and painful experience to leave [their] native country, family and friends” they claimed in a press conference that they would be “better accepted socially” in the Soviet Union.
At first, this was the case. The Soviet journalists erupted into applause when Martin snubbed an American reporter who asked what they were doing now that they were in the USSR.
The end of their story also sounds familiar: the Soviet Union didn’t live up to their expectations. Each tried to return to the United States, which wouldn’t have them. Martin died in 1987 in Tijuana and was buried in the US, while Mitchell died in St. Petersburg in 2001.