News / USA

Snowden Not the First NSA Defector

Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, June 9, 2013, in Hong Kong.
Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, June 9, 2013, in Hong Kong.
TEXT SIZE - +
Edward Snowden isn't the first National Security Agency insider to leave the United States and spill spy agency secrets.
 
It hasn't gone according to plan for Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then spent more than a month marooned in the transit zone of a Moscow airport before finally getting his temporary asylum papers on Thursday.
 
And it didn’t go well for a couple of NSA defectors who came long before him.
 
William Martin and Bernon Mitchell were friends working at the National Security Agency in the late 1950s. The two were working in a highly technical field – the code-related work known as cryptology.
 
In the course of their work, Martin and Mitchell came across highly-secret documents, says David Barrett, a national security expert now teaching at Villanova University.
 
“For example, they became aware that not only was the NSA listening in to the communications of foreign countries that were enemies or rivals, like the Soviet Union, they discovered that the National Security Agency was also monitoring communications of countries that were our allies,” Barrett said. “And they thought this was deeply offensive and just wrong.”
 
Barrett said the two also learned that the American government was intercepting and reading mail that came into the U.S. from other countries.
 
And now more than half a century later, Snowden, is accusing the agency of doing more or less the same thing.
 
The two men were disillusioned
 
Barrett says Martin and Mitchell were disillusioned and decided to do something about it.
 
 “They noticed the idealistic language that President [Dwight] Eisenhower used in his speeches – public speeches – and compared it to some of what they knew the government was doing and so they decided to defect to the Soviet Union.”
 
Barrett says that in June of 1960, Martin and Mitchell told their superiors they were going on a month-long vacation to visit family and friends. But instead, they made their way to Moscow via New Orleans, Mexico City and Cuba.
 
When they didn’t return from vacation, their superiors got suspicious. Barrett says two months later, the NSA issued a statement saying agency “mathematicians” might have defected behind the Iron Curtain.
 
“But they said there is no way that anything that these two guys know could do any harm to the security of the U.S.,” he said. “And so it was treated as sort of a small event and initially, the press simply accepted that story that it was a small event.”
 
On September 6, 1960, Martin and Mitchell held a news conference in Moscow. Barrett says “there was a real outpouring of information about the National Security Agency.”
 
No Such Agency
 
“It became on the public record what the National Security Agency was, what it was doing,” he said. “Honestly, until this defection, there was almost no public knowledge of the NSA. And in fact, people around Washington who knew that it existed would joke that NSA stood for ‘No Such Agency.’”
 
Barrett says President Eisenhower referred to the two defectors as “self-confessed traitors,” and former president Harry Truman said “they ought to be shot.”
 
“There wasn’t much that Martin and Mitchell offered the Soviets after the passage of some months or maybe a year – and they just became these sorts of exiles in the Soviet Union,” Barrett said.
 
NSA leaker Edward Snowden received this temporary asylum visa to Russia on Thursday, August 1.NSA leaker Edward Snowden received this temporary asylum visa to Russia on Thursday, August 1.
x
NSA leaker Edward Snowden received this temporary asylum visa to Russia on Thursday, August 1.
NSA leaker Edward Snowden received this temporary asylum visa to Russia on Thursday, August 1.
“They chose the Soviet Union in part because they thought it was a workers’ paradise,” he continued. “They thought it would be a wonderful place to live. And the story after that is not really a happy story because they became disillusioned with life in the Soviet Union – it was no kind of paradise.”
 
Peter Savodnik, who has written about American defectors, says Martin, Mitchell and others were far different from those who decided to move to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.
 
“In the Cold War era [roughly 1947-1991], they tended to be a much sadder set of people – people who are really disenfranchised, who really feel sort of spiritually at sea,” Savodnik said. “The Soviet Union was not so much a beacon of hope for them, as it was an escape.”
 
William Martin died in 1987 at the age of 56, while Bernon Mitchell died in 2001 at the age of 72.
 
Snowden’s temporary asylum visa for Russia is valid for one year. No one knows yet where he goes from there – or even if he’ll stay in Russia that long.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: James Reed from: Virginia
August 02, 2013 8:15 AM
"Voice of America" ? I am an American, and you sure as shee-it don't speak for me. I have to pay taxes to support your hate rants and you censor my comments. Yeah, that's the "American way"


by: david lulasa from: tambua village,hamisi,vih
August 02, 2013 7:24 AM
the defectors and criminals are stopping their trade whenever they reach moscow....therefore,russia should accept many asylum seekers who mostly are criminals...their crime will end for russia wont accept their goodwill to be undermined.

lulasa

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid