The Worst Internal Scandal in NSA History Was Blamed on Cold War Defectors’ Homosexuality – But what if they weren’t gay?
July 18, 2007
To some of his detractors, William Hamilton Martin was something of an amusing figure on the streets of Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, a bookish mathematician with a crew cut who walked with a Groucho Marx–like waddle. But what others remembered most was that lean, blue-eyed “Ham” Martin, a University of Washington graduate and the son of an Ellensburg meatpacker, was a meticulous dresser, spoke “slightly effeminately,” and may have had a thing for a Stanford grad named Bernon Mitchell.
Furthermore, the belief among some officials, politicians, and the press was that because Martin and Mitchell might be homosexual, they did the unthinkable: In the midst of the Cold War, the two National Security Agency code breakers defected to Russia and went to work for the Soviet government.
On June 25, 1960, after four years as trusted employees of America’s largest spy agency, Martin, then 29, and Mitchell, then 31, flew out of Washington, D.C., with one-way tickets to Mexico City. From there, they quietly slipped off to Havana and took a Russian freighter to the Soviet Union, following a plan that had evolved over a year. The case stunned politicians and intelligence officials alike. Looking back, some of the defectors’ neighbors and co-workers told investigators that if they’d been more vigilant about the pair’s sexual proclivities, maybe they’d have been more suspicious of their patriotism.
In the eyes of many Americans, sexual deviants—then the commonly used term for homosexual men—were potential traitors, a belief that’s been perpetuated in more modern times. A 1991 Pentagon study of paraphilia (kinky or bizarre sexual behaviors) issued by the Defense Security Service and used today in military circles counts Martin and Mitchell among a group of “publicly known homosexuals” who betrayed their country. Political, counterintelligence, and religious Internet sites currently refer to Martin “and his gay friend,” and a 1997 book, The Homosexual Revolution, informs readers that the two “were homosexuals who had been permitted access to classified information.”
But according to the NSA’s own investigative files, obtained exclusively by Seattle Weekly, there’s one major problem with the flaming traitor theory: Martin and Mitchell weren’t gay. The formerly classified Pentagon and NSA documents, which reveal previously unpublished details of the historic spy-agency saga, appear to clear Martin and Mitchell of the sexual charges that rocked the country 47 years ago this summer and led to landmark NSA policy changes.
“Beyond any doubt,” the unnamed author of a then-secret NSA study on the defection wrote in 1963, according to the recently released documents, “no other event has had, or is likely to have in the future, a greater impact on the Agency’s security program.” Screening methods used today at NSA, with a work force estimated at 30,000, evolved from Internal Security Act legislation passed in the wake of the pair’s defection.
After interviewing more than 450 individuals about the twosome’s character, habits, and sex lives—right down to the skin rash on Martin’s stomach—the NSA, in a 1961 report, could find no conclusive evidence the two men were gay. “Martin and Mitchell were known to be close friends and somewhat anti-social, but no one had any knowledge of a homosexual relationship between them,” investigators reported. Both, in fact, had American girlfriends, and Martin married a Russian woman four months after his arrival there. Mitchell also wed later.
The recently declassified documents—about 85 pages of lightly redacted records that include information from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that took four years to fulfill—reveal that both men, now reported dead, quickly soured on Soviet life, felt their defection was a mistake, and tried repeatedly to return to the U.S. Mitchell never made it, having been buried in St. Petersburg, Russia, in November 2001 at the age of 72. But Martin, the Ellensburg defector, returned to American soil in 1987—literally. A diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico that year states: “William H. Martin died of cancer at Hospital Del Mar in Tijuana on January 17, 1987.” He was three months short of his 56th birthday. “Burial,” the cable noted, “took place in the United States.” No location or details were provided.
Revelations of a witch-hunt gone astray don’t surprise former Washington National Guard Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, a lesbian and the military’s highest-ranking officer to be discharged because of sexual orientation. “[It is] my understanding that there had never been a homosexual blackmail [in which silence was] traded for state secrets,” she says.
Author and historian David K. Johnson, an expert on the Cold War history of gays in the government, agrees with Cammermeyer, adding that desertion to Russia “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.” Among the gay bashers was then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, after his death, was rumored to have been an avid cross-dresser.
James Bamford, an expert on the NSA and author of the best-selling agency exposé The Puzzle Palace, was surprised to hear that old lefty defector Martin was interred in the country he betrayed. That’s “new and very interesting,” he observed. Bamford, who labeled the defection the worst internal scandal in NSA history, says lack of proof the two were gay confirms his belief the public was misled about Martin and Mitchell. “I think the NSA was looking for any straw to grasp when the defections occurred,” he says, “and homosexuality was the perfect excuse.”
Growing up among conservative Central Washington’s fields of grain, Martin seemed an unlikely traitor. His father, John, was then president of the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce, and young Martin was a gifted student at Ellensburg High, where he finished school in two years. He then studied at Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University) and, in 1947, earned a degree in mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Martin was raised among sunburned farm kids who believed in the flag and didn’t question their government. World War II and the atomic bomb, made from plutonium produced at Hanford 100 miles southeast, were major influences on their 1940s environment. Like a lot of landlocked youth across the mountains from Seattle, Martin longed to join the Navy and serve his country, as he later did.
Assigned to a post in Japan with the Naval Security Group from 1951 to 1954, he met Mitchell, a budding weight lifter, pistol enthusiast, and pianist born in San Francisco, the NSA notes in its files. (The agency meticulously recorded that he hated lettuce but liked raw chicken.) After their Navy service, Martin and Mitchell kept in touch when both returned to college, and met again after they were recruited by the NSA. Both pursued further studies in science and mathematics.
Martin, a serious chess player who collected Japanese sword handles, was seen by some as introverted and troubled. His file includes details of sessions at the University of Washington Counseling Center in the late 1940s, where he sought assistance for “certain personality aberrations.”
“[Tests] disclosed that Martin was a brilliant but emotionally immature individual who did not respect his father, who pitied his younger brother and who expressed his antipathy toward his mother,” reads the file. “Martin’s condition was diagnosed as a beginning character neurosis with schizoid tendencies. It was also believed that Martin was sadistic.” Martin reportedly had two brothers, but no surviving family members could be reached for this story.
Their years at the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s now 55-year-old semiautonomous espionage branch, were seemingly uneventful, the files indicate. Using their exceptional calculation and pattern-recognition skills, Martin and Mitchell helped decipher and possibly encode secret communiqués at the then-young agency. Today, the NSA’s top-secret network of supercomputers, headquartered at Fort Meade, Md., and its global listening posts—including an international intercept station hidden among the dunes at the Yakima Army Firing Range and a vast antenna farm on a mesa above Brewster in Okanogan County—scan the daily gusher of world communications. Experts pore over the missives of friendly and enemy nations alike, utilizing an intelligence-gathering discipline known as Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT, that allows them to electronically collect, process, and analyze content. Esoteric as it is, the system traps the everyday conversations of U.S. citizens as well. Congress recently subpoenaed the Bush White House to determine if the administration ordered the illegal use of SIGINT to eavesdrop on those private conversations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
On Aug. 1, 1960, the Pentagon guardedly announced that Martin and Mitchell had failed to return from a summer vacation together, leading to anxious speculation they’d defected. Four days later, officials stated that there was “the likelihood” that Martin and Mitchell “have gone behind the Iron Curtain.” Supposedly privy to some of America’s most sensitive secrets, including knowledge of broken foreign military and diplomatic codes, the duo appeared to have handed Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev an edge in the two superpowers’ psychological Cold War and arms race.
A little more than a month later, Martin and Mitchell confirmed their betrayal at an elaborate Sept. 6 press conference in Moscow, where they had been granted asylum and became instant Soviet citizens. Nattily clad in shirt and tie before 200 reporters at the theater-style House of Journalists, Mitchell announced that he and Martin were disgusted with the deceptive nature of a supposed democracy. The pair also felt they were suited for Soviet life, where they would be “better accepted socially.”
A banner New York Times headline the next day noted that President Dwight D. Eisenhower “Calls Pair Traitorous.” Furthermore, said Ike, they were “self-confessed” traitors. The reliably blunt former President Harry Truman suggested they be shot.
John F. Kennedy, who would go on to defeat Vice President Richard Nixon for the White House that year, coincidentally was campaigning in Seattle that day. He didn’t refer directly to local defector Martin, but said, “I cannot believe that there is any person in this state or nation who would not like to see the arms race ended….[Yet] we can prepare for peace only by preparing for war.” Martin’s bewildered father, John, told reporters that as far as he knew, his son had no interest in politics. Ham must be in Moscow “under duress,” the elder Martin theorized. In California, Mitchell’s father, Emery, a Eureka attorney and community leader, expressed similar sentiments.
Besides the intelligence breach, the defection would mark a historical turning point in employment protocol at Fort Meade. The NSA immediately began searching for other sexual deviants in its ranks, eventually purging 26 employees suspected of being security risks because of their alleged “perversions.” The agency also revamped employment-screening and in-house security practices, among other things permanently allowing investigators to access confidential employee polygraph tests.
Department of Defense officials at first publicly denied having allowed the two men to slip through their trusty screening process and obtain high-level security clearances. Upon further review, officials discovered that while Mitchell had been granted clearance after originally refusing to answer intake queries about his sex life, he eventually admitted to sexually experimenting with chickens and dogs as a teenager.
A 1962 report on the defection, issued by the subversive-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, went further: Besides being agnostic and having associated with Communists, Martin was “sexually abnormal; in fact, a masochist,” while Mitchell, who had once posed for nude color slides perched on a velvet-covered stool, had supposedly been outed by his psychiatrist. The HUAC report claimed the doctor secretly testified “to the effect” that Mitchell had admitted he “has had homosexual problems.”
In his book on the NSA, author Bamford concludes that the HUAC report “seemed to indicate the primary reason for the defection was homosexuality. Never once did the committee bother to look into what might have been the deeper reasons for the defection, the political or ideological motivations.”
At the Moscow press conference, Martin and Mitchell tried to explain their motives, citing U.S. “policies dangerous to world peace,” as Mitchell put it. He pointed to a 1960 speech by the U.S. Strategic Air Command chief, Gen. Thomas Power, who—on a topic that echoes today in America—spoke of the “tremendous advantages that accrue to the man who starts a war” and the necessity of having first-strike nuclear capabilities.
“Gen. Powers’ statement involves the dangerous presumption,” Mitchell told his Soviet audience, “that the United States owns the world.” He called the first-strike policy suicidal and accused the U.S. of deliberately violating the airspace of other nations before “lying about such violations in a manner intended to mislead public opinion.”
Only months earlier—May Day 1960—international tensions had escalated with the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over Russia. Pilot Francis Gary Powers, who invaded Soviet airspace on a surveillance flight, was captured, tried, and imprisoned (then swapped in a prisoner exchange for KGB colonel and spy Rudolf Abel 21 months later). Eisenhower refused to apologize, and, under Kennedy, the Cold War relentlessly grew into a potential nuclear war with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—an apocalypse ultimately aborted through back-channel talks between the Kennedy and Khrushchev administrations.
Still unknown are what sort of details Martin and Mitchell provided to the Russians. But their public statements—describing reconnaissance flights both countries likely knew about, and giving general details of how NSA intercepts airborne communications worldwide—weren’t especially damaging, some press observers noted. The defectors evidently did not publicly disclose any high-level secrets and, by some accounts, had never worked inside the NSA’s most sensitive intelligence loop anyway, with U.S. officials alternately describing them as “junior mathematicians” and “clerks.” (Even today, so little is known about the mysterious NSA that it is referred to jokingly as No Such Agency.)
Either way, Martin and Mitchell seemed naive about the consequences of their choice and the harm they could bring to America. They could have made their statement in the U.S., albeit not quite as dramatically, without betraying their country. “What originally got the two angry at NSA and the U.S. government were the spy flights near and over Soviet territory,” says author Bamford, whose latest book, A Pretext for War, is about the government’s manipulation of intelligence to justify invading Iraq.”They did try to go through the proper procedure originally, by telling a congressman about it. But when nothing was done, they made their decision to defect.” (The Congressman, Rep. Wayne Hays of Ohio, later departed Congress after scandalously hiring his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, as a secretary, even though she couldn’t type.)
Speaking out in the U.S. likely would have gotten Martin and Mitchell fired and left them facing charges for revealing secrets, which could have entailed federal prison time. In Moscow, laying out their reasons for defecting, Mitchell indicated that he and Martin weighed the alternatives of Russian freedom vs. American persecution. They preferred the former, said Mitchell: In the U.S., people with unpopular political convictions “are frequently hailed before investigating committees, harassed, fined, imprisoned, and denied jobs” (something likewise possible, of course, in the gulag-controlled U.S.S.R.).
Mitchell likely was referring in part to the Red Scare bred by Sen. Joe McCarthy, who recklessly questioned the loyalty of government workers and others he suspected were Communists or sympathizers during the 1950s. But there was a kind of civil service McCarthyism going on as well, in which real or suspected gay government workers were perceived as national security risks and often fired. Johnson, author of the 2004 book The Lavender Scare, says that once the Red Scare faded in the 1950s, the Martin and Mitchell defection “breathed new life into the Lavender Scare.” The Los Angeles Times reported the two might be part of a ring of homosexuals who “recruit other sex deviates for federal jobs.” Hearst papers (including the P-I) referred to “the two defecting blackmailed homosexual specialists” as a “love team.” The lavender stage had already been set by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer in their 1951 exposé, Washington Confidential. That best seller called D.C. “a garden of pansies” with 6,000 homosexuals on the government payroll, stating that “if you’re wondering where your wandering semi-boy is tonight, he’s probably in Washington.”
The Pentagon and HUAC (which disbanded in 1975) effectively wrote off Martin and Mitchell as aberrant turncoats, too limp-wristed to wave a flag. “The Martin and Mitchell case,” says Johnson, “demonstrates that when it comes to gay people and public policy, fantasy has historically played a stronger role than the facts. There was no rational basis for the argument that gay people posed a threat to national security in the 1950s, just as there is no rational basis for our exclusion from the military today.It’s pure animus and unthinking stereotyping that drove the Martin case and continues to drive public policy today.”
According to the newly obtained Pentagon and NSA documents, Martin and Mitchell defected for ideological reasons. Acquaintances said Martin and Mitchell often spoke of their disenchantment with government policies, and hinted at someday deserting. They also vacationed in Cuba and Mexico in 1959, something the NSA never knew about. They may have tried to flee then, but the Russians initially “did not show too much interest in them,” sources told the NSA.
That they held such beliefs seems to have surprised the NSA, which wasn’t keeping a close watch on the pair. Martin’s and Mitchell’s families, who spoke little to reporters, cooperated with the ensuing investigation. Martin’s family said it was “absolutely impossible” that Ham went willingly to the Soviet Union and that their parting statement had to be a forgery. (Martin and Mitchell left a hard copy of the statement they read aloud in a safe deposit box in Maryland.) Similarly, the declassified files state, “The Mitchell family advised that their son had mentioned psychiatric treatment; that all through his life he has been influenced by others…[he always] tagged along.”
In a way, the NSA agreed. “The most plausible explanations for the defection attributed it to personal abnormalities,” the agency’s documents state. The multiagency U.S. probe “revealed that the two were egotistical, arrogant and insecure young men whose place in society was much lower than they believed they deserved. Both had greatly inflated opinions concerning their intellectual attainments and talents, and both reportedly expressed bitter resentment that they had not yet received the recognition they were sure they deserved as up-and-coming young scientists.”
As for their alleged homosexuality, the files make clear that the two men were enamored by both American and Russian women. “Personal associates also deny any knowledge of homosexuality on the part of Martin and Mitchell and state that both men engaged in social and sexual activity with women,” the NSA reports. “One [U.S.] female associate of Mitchell acknowledges frequent and normal sexual activity with him during the entire period of their acquaintance.” Some American friends and neighbors thought they were “odd young men who kept to themselves.”
But then they apparently did have personal secrets to protect, NSA investigators found. One of Martin’s regular companions was a Baltimore stripper known as Lady Zorro; she told investigators she had as many as 40 “dates” with the mathematician, who always paid in large amounts of cash.
A source described Martin as “totally devoted to his all-controlling sadomasochism,” and an Ellensburg man said Martin had “perverted sexual relations with Japanese females [while in the Navy] and with women in the State of Washington.” The acts apparently involved watching, or joining in with, two women having sex. After Martin’s arrival in Russia, the NSA reported, he “denied emphatically that either he or Mitchell were homosexuals. He said he had some sex problems, but that he was certainly not a homosexual.” His “sex problems,” it appeared, always involved women.
As for their love of communism, once they got a whiff of Russian life in the hardscrabble Red society of the 1960s, the duo quickly longed for home. Martin asked about the possibility of returning as early as 1961, records show.
The NSA papers, which include intelligence reports on their life in Russia as late as 1975, indicate both men tried to arrange for their return to the States, on the condition that they wouldn’t be imprisoned. They also attempted to meet with their families, possibly in Mexico or Canada, but reunions apparently were never held. In the following years, Martin, Mitchell, and their families asked U.S. officials if the two would face trial if they returned voluntarily. Officials would say only that no charges had been filed, and suggested they might be allowed back. The defectors suspected this was a trick to lure them to the States, where, if charged with treason, they’d face the death penalty.
In Russia, Martin and Mitchell worked and studied in Leningrad and, for at least the first year, were intensely debriefed by the Soviet government—with the KGB always nearby. Each man initially earned, in equivalent U.S. dollars, about $500 a month from the government. Martin, who was fluent in Russian, studied at Leningrad University, and used the name Vladimir Sokolodsky.
“Both married Soviet citizens,” says one government report, “but Martin divorced his wife [Inessa] in about July 1963 after moving to Moscow.” Meanwhile, Mitchell married a woman named Galina, dean of the piano faculty at Leningrad Conservatory. Reportedly, neither fathered any children.
The documents also reveal that Martin and Mitchell repeatedly introduced themselves to visiting Americans, seeking their help to return to their native soil. Among the visitors was Bernard Oliver, chief researcher at Hewlett-Packard. Mitchell reportedly told Oliver that he and Martin helped the Soviets make their code system less susceptible to U.S. cracking, but were “of no help to the U.S.S.R. in breaking U.S. codes.” Martin, meanwhile, showed up at a restaurant where Donald Duffy, vice president of the Kaiser Foundation, was having dinner. Martin told Duffy that he wasn’t “a homosexual or a spy” and was doing laser beam research.
Martin also sought out touring American bandleader Benny Goodman for a chat in Leningrad, saying he needed help getting a lawyer to leave Russia. Nothing apparently came of the encounters. (Mike Roetto, a Virginia-based blogger who works in the security field, recently obtained State Department documents reflecting efforts the two defectors undertook to regain their citizenship. Roetto says he wanted to study the “dark corner” of risk created in this case, assessing whether the re-entry process contained loopholes that could be exploited today. Based on the documents posted at roetto.org/blog, which include Martin’s death notice from Mexico, there’s no indication either defector was repatriated. But in at least one message, the State Department advised the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that it should “mail to Martin the forms to apply for registration as a U.S. citizen by mail.”)
In a newspaper interview in Russia, Martin called his defection “foolhardy,” but said he wasn’t ashamed. He told another person the Russians actually didn’t trust him, “for he is under constant surveillance by them and given work only of the lowest order of priority.” His friend Mitchell, who spoke little Russian, had become morose and a heavy drinker, some sources said, willing to divorce his wife and do whatever it took to get out of the country. But by all accounts, he remained in Russia even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, dying there 10 years later.
Meanwhile, by 1975, “Martin was described by one source as being ‘totally on the skids,’ an incurable alcoholic, and surrounded by degenerates and devoted to the practice of sexual perversions,” according to reports. Once a fit 5 foot 11 and 175 pounds, Martin had become a “sweaty…seedy” man of over 200 pounds. Within two years, he’d get his wish to leave Russia (possibly via an Australian passport he’d applied for), apparently spending his final days just south of the U.S. border, and eternity deep within American soil.
In the 1963 NSA study, a summary of the “secret findings” reveals that government investigators found “some of the worst fears aroused by the case were groundless [and] established no clear motive for the defection.” The Russians hadn’t enticed the duo, and the two were not part of any foreign espionage effort. The study concludes that “the accumulated evidence indicated that the defection was an impulsive, self-generated act, conceived and initiated without outside prompting or assistance.”
Ultimately, the queerest things about Martin and Mitchell were their political, not sexual, acts. “Were they living today,” quips author Bamford, “[they] would probably defect all over again.”