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.
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

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed 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.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs