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

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily 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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs