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The NSA Has a Long History of Smearing Leakers as 'Sexual Deviates'

When the last major defection hit the NSA, the government smeared the leakers as gay. New documents show they lied

Edward Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow last Saturday, reportedly to seek asylum in another country, marked the start of what has become – every 53 years or so – a major National Security Agency defection that involves Russia. I doubt Snowden understood it was anniversary week at Fort Meade. But on June 25, 1960, also a Saturday, two NSA employees named William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell who, like one-time NSA employee and contract worker Snowden, had intimate knowledge of the agency’s sensitive inner operations — quietly boarded a plane in Washington, D.C., with Moscow as their ultimate destination.

The Cold War defection of the two code breakers made global headlines like those Snowden is making, albeit without today’s blow-by-blow tweets and cable coverage. When the two longtime buddies surfaced months later at a press conference in the Soviet Union, they announced they’d been granted asylum and had become Soviet citizens. Standing before 200 reporters at Moscow’s theater-styled House of Journalists, the defectors said they hoped to expose what they called the government’s lies – similar to Snowden’s stated motives in revealing NSA’s megadata collection of the public’s phone calls. The NSA panicked; a secret study from 1963 by the agency declares that “Beyond any doubt, no other event has had, or is likely to have in the future, a greater impact on the Agency’s security program.”

Though a half-century apart, the NSA insider defections have striking parallels. And while Snowden is apparently planning to eventually take up asylum in Ecuador,  his predecessors’ historic crossover hints at what kind of life lies ahead for a spy on the lam with his bags, or thumb drive, brimming with pirated documents. There is at least one major difference, however. Snowden is being called everything from hero to traitor, as Mitchell and Martin were (although most Americans back then seemed to agree with President Dwight Eisenhower who labeled the twosome “self-confessed” turncoats, and more than a few sided with former President Harry Truman, who suggested the duo should be shot).

But nobody’s calling Snowden gay, at least. Back in the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s – detailed in David K. Johnson’s 2006 book and in a movie of the same name due out this summer  – the demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy was leading the charge against suspected commies and homosexuals supposedly hiding in the government’s closets. Persecuting pinkos took some evidence while charges of just being gay could pass as an indictment – gays and lesbians with sensitive government jobs were conceivably vulnerable to blackmailing. In that atmosphere, and within days of the defectors’ Moscow press conference, Rep. Francis Walter, chair of the subversive-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), labeled Martin and Mitchell “sex deviates,” a commonly used term then for homosexuals. A political legend was therein born.

Even the two defectors seemed to hint at such a lifestyle, telling reporters they felt more suited for Soviet life where they would be “better accepted socially.” Martin, especially, stood out in stereotype, described in news reports as a bookish mathematician and meticulous dresser who, some thought, spoke “slighty effeminately.”  The accusation provided an opportune excuse for the NSA. If the defectors were shown to be gay, their credibility and any claims of high-minded motives could be easily dismissed. (Pentagon officials went so far as to announce that after Mitchell was hired, he admitted to having sexually experimented as a teenager with chickens and dogs). Johnson, the author, told me that desertion to Russia back then “was literally unthinkable for most American officials. So to make sense of the defection, they turned to the alleged sexual perversion. That was already associated in the popular imagination with subversion and communism.” Adds NSA expert and author James Bamford, who in “The Puzzle Palace” labeled the defection the worst internal scandal in NSA history: “I think the NSA was looking for any straw to grasp when the defections occurred, and homosexuality was the perfect excuse.”

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