The Explosive NSA Spy Scandal That Rivals Snowden

In the scorching June heat of 1960, National Security Agency cryptologists William Martin, 29, and Bernon Mitchell, 31, departed on a three-week holiday together - a cover for their audacious defection to Moscow.

The NSA in the 1960s
The secretive NSA, created in 1952, was known as ‘No Such Agency’ in the 1960s


Codebreakers on the lam

A month later, the walls of the NSA trembled as the truth was revealed - a scandal so shocking US authorities tried to discredit them by calling the men ‘sexual deviants’. Intelligence declassified 50 years later reveals a compellingly different story, however. It seems the US government was not altogether truthful when dealing with its foreign allies and US voters in 1960. It is a story similar to the one told by Edward Snowden, but in some ways Martin and Mitchell’s revelations were even more damaging to US-Soviet relations.

The cryptologists knew the sensitive inner operations of both the US Navy and NSA when they headed to Moscow in 1960. It took several months before the two men resurfaced at a USSR-hosted press conference on September 6, 1960, to explain why they fled Washington, D.C.

Their prepared statement included a dramatic accusation, “We were worried about the US policy of deliberately violating the airspace of other nations and the US government’s practice of lying about such violations.” The men went on to say they were also “disenchanted” by the US intercepting and deciphering its Allies’ secret communications and recruiting their personnel.

Martin and Mitchell (in glasses) address a crowd of 200 at the Moscow ‘House of Journalists’
Martin and Mitchell (in glasses) address a crowd of 200 at the Moscow ‘House of Journalists’


Exposing government ‘lies’

Some 5,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., Martin and Mitchell hit a nerve. Former President Harry Truman suggested the pair be shot. President Dwight Eisenhower labeled them (not entirely inaccurately) self-confessed turncoats although the two men painted themselves as whistleblowers rather than traitors.

Rep. Francis Walter, chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), labeled Martin and Mitchell ‘sex deviates’ (aka homosexuals). Within a year, The New York Times said the US government had dismissed 26 other ‘sexual deviates’ and thousands of other firings were still to come in an era known as the Lavender Scare. 

"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," according to a secret NSA study from 1963. 


NSA Artistic montage


Homosexuality: the ‘perfect excuse’

The only problem for the NSA was that there was no evidence of homosexuality. Both men dated women in the US and would go on to marry Russian women. A stripper known as Lady Zorro claimed Martin paid in cash for their 40 or so ‘dates’.

In one formerly classified document from July 1975, Martin was described by an intelligence source as "totally on the skids" and “surrounded by degenerates and devoted to the practice of sexual perversions." There was no mention of homosexuality, however, even 15 years after their defections. 

“I think the NSA was looking for any straw to grasp when the defections occurred, and homosexuality was the perfect excuse,” James Bamford wrote in The Puzzle Palace. Smearing and discrediting the men as gay - essentially, linking them to subversion and communism - would undermine their credibility, make their whistleblowing appear less noble, and ease the fears of US voters.

The Explosive NSA Spy Scandal That Rivals Snowden

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In the scorching June heat of 1960, National Security Agency cryptologists William Martin, 29, and Bernon Mitchell, 31, departed on a three-week holiday together - a cover for their audacious defection to Moscow.

The NSA in the 1960s
The secretive NSA, created in 1952, was known as ‘No Such Agency’ in the 1960s


Codebreakers on the lam

A month later, the walls of the NSA trembled as the truth was revealed - a scandal so shocking US authorities tried to discredit them by calling the men ‘sexual deviants’. Intelligence declassified 50 years later reveals a compellingly different story, however. It seems the US government was not altogether truthful when dealing with its foreign allies and US voters in 1960. It is a story similar to the one told by Edward Snowden, but in some ways Martin and Mitchell’s revelations were even more damaging to US-Soviet relations.

The cryptologists knew the sensitive inner operations of both the US Navy and NSA when they headed to Moscow in 1960. It took several months before the two men resurfaced at a USSR-hosted press conference on September 6, 1960, to explain why they fled Washington, D.C.

Their prepared statement included a dramatic accusation, “We were worried about the US policy of deliberately violating the airspace of other nations and the US government’s practice of lying about such violations.” The men went on to say they were also “disenchanted” by the US intercepting and deciphering its Allies’ secret communications and recruiting their personnel.

Martin and Mitchell (in glasses) address a crowd of 200 at the Moscow ‘House of Journalists’
Martin and Mitchell (in glasses) address a crowd of 200 at the Moscow ‘House of Journalists’


Exposing government ‘lies’

Some 5,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., Martin and Mitchell hit a nerve. Former President Harry Truman suggested the pair be shot. President Dwight Eisenhower labeled them (not entirely inaccurately) self-confessed turncoats although the two men painted themselves as whistleblowers rather than traitors.

Rep. Francis Walter, chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), labeled Martin and Mitchell ‘sex deviates’ (aka homosexuals). Within a year, The New York Times said the US government had dismissed 26 other ‘sexual deviates’ and thousands of other firings were still to come in an era known as the Lavender Scare. 

"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," according to a secret NSA study from 1963. 


NSA Artistic montage


Homosexuality: the ‘perfect excuse’

The only problem for the NSA was that there was no evidence of homosexuality. Both men dated women in the US and would go on to marry Russian women. A stripper known as Lady Zorro claimed Martin paid in cash for their 40 or so ‘dates’.

In one formerly classified document from July 1975, Martin was described by an intelligence source as "totally on the skids" and “surrounded by degenerates and devoted to the practice of sexual perversions." There was no mention of homosexuality, however, even 15 years after their defections. 

“I think the NSA was looking for any straw to grasp when the defections occurred, and homosexuality was the perfect excuse,” James Bamford wrote in The Puzzle Palace. Smearing and discrediting the men as gay - essentially, linking them to subversion and communism - would undermine their credibility, make their whistleblowing appear less noble, and ease the fears of US voters.

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Moscow landscape



The Iron Curtain parts for Martin and Mitchell

It seems the dream of living ‘happily ever after’ in the Soviet workers’ paradise proved as naive as the men’s belief they could enact change at the NSA through whistleblowing.

They initially resettled in Leningrad. Martin - fluent in Russian - studied at Leningrad University but they were homesick. Both repeatedly offered to return to the US on the condition they did not face charges. One NSA report said Martin had confided he was under constant surveillance by the Russian security services (and, indeed, the Western security services) and “given work only of the lowest order of priority”.

Both men began drinking. There are unconfirmed reports that Martin, battling cancer, left the USSR using an Australian passport and was buried in the US at the age of 55. Mitchell was buried in St. Petersburg in 2001. 


News stories of NSA spies in Russia


Winners and losers in the spying game

The extent of the secrets Martin and Mitchell gave to the Russians and the damage to US security has not been revealed although it was dismissed by the US as minor. The NSA described the men as ‘junior mathematicians’ and ‘clerks’ although at the press conference they’d laid out NSA’s secrets and operations.

They described the network of radio intercept stations that supplied intel to NSA throughout the world, kept in continuous operation through more than 2,000 manual intercept positions staffed by more than 8,000 Armed Forces intercept operators. Mitchell and Martin revealed that the US was monitoring about 40 countries including its allies France and Italy, and they told a story about NSA involvement in a break-in at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

So who won the 1960 battle? In the words of one assessment found among the declassified NSA documents released in 2015, "The Soviet Union benefited most. The USSR gained not only an invaluable amount of information concerning the operations of the National Security Agency, they also had won an important propaganda battle, indeed a momentous one."

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