Cold War Sex, Cold War Secrecy

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 30th, 2012

This weekend I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about the unusual death of an MI6 agent. The agent in question was found dead in his apartment, badly decomposed and locked in a duffel bag. Apparently the “official” line here is that he was into unusual sexual games, including “claustrophilia,” a fetish so outre that even the venerable Wikipedia doesn’t yet have an entry on it in its copious library of paraphilias.

"Photographs from a video show an expert trying to determine whether Mr. Williams could have locked himself in a duffel bag." I don't judge. (Reuters via The New York Times)

That’s titillating, I suppose, but what’s really interesting here is that the UK intelligence agencies are using this as an example of the fact that they don’t care about the outre sexual practices of their agents anymore — and because of that, it isn’t blackmail material. That’s a pretty bold thing to say, given the sordid history of intelligence agencies in prosecuting homosexuals and others who engaged in other-than-heteronormative sexual activity during the Cold War. (On this, see David K. Johnston’s The Lavender Scare.)

The official line here was that “sex deviants” were probably psychologically unwell (this is, of course, the period in which homosexuality was still classified as mental illness), and, even if they weren’t, that they were vulnerable to blackmail attempts, and thus could be vulnerable to being coerced into aiding enemy powers. Or putting that last part in its fully circuitous form: because homosexuals were not tolerated, they were vulnerable to blackmail, thus they could not be tolerated. 

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was no stranger to these Cold War concerns. In February 1951, just before the beginning of the Rosenberg trial, AEC Chairman Gordon Dean reported to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that they had rooted out a high-placed homosexual:1

  • Mr. Dean: … We had one other pleasant thing during the course of the last month. We found out that a man down at Oak Ridge, who was in charge of personnel, was given to homosexual activity. He was arrested up here in the District of Columbia when he was up here on a trip; and of course we removed him from the payroll immediately, fired him.
  • We have also checked to see if there has been anybody brought into the program by him who might be a person with similar proclivities at the Oak Ridge office. We see no evidence of that at this point.
  • Mr. Holifield: How long had he been personnel officer at that point?
  • Mr. Dean: A matter of three years, I think. […]
  • Sen. Bricker: What did he do?
  • Mr. Dean: He was a homosexual, picked up here by the police in Washington, D.C. It was a very unfortunate place for a man to be in, a place as high in the program as the personnel office of Oak Ridge, but such things happen.
  • Sen. Hickenlooper: He failed to report a former arrest on his PSQ [Personnel Security Questionnaire, required for security clearances], didn’t he?
  • Mr. Dean: In looking back in the file we find he did not report an arrest in his PSQ. At a subsequent hearing, which took place about two and a half years ago, he was interrogated about this, and the interrogation was not skillfully conducted and they got almost up to the point of why he had been arrested and what it was all about and then it trails off into the transcript. […]
  • Mr. Cole: What is the reason your folks weren’t able to discover his weaknesses in the three years he was down there?
  • Mr. Dean: He is perfectly normal apparently when he is down there. He is a married man, he engaged in sexual intercourse. When he goes out of town, apparently this other thing comes on him. He got liquored up. It is when he drinks excessively. There is no indication from anybody down there he was even suspected of this sort of activity. […]
  • Sen. Bricker: Was there any evidence in this man’s contacts and associations away from there that there was any security risk?
  • Mr. Dean: No. […]
  • Sen. Bricker: I mean, in his homosexual activities outside. Do you know of any pressure that might be used against him to give secrets and to get any more of his kind into the operation?
  • Mr. Dean: Is there evidence of that?
  • Mr. Waters: No evidence of that.

What a sad thing. Here’s a guy who has spent the one life he has living in a horrible closet — not just one mandated by the social norms, but the “national security” requirements of his career. He’s so deep in the closet, so afraid, that he doesn’t act upon it unless out of town and very drunk. He gets arrested for his sexual preferences, loses his job, god knows what else. At least he was probably unaware that his sexual habits were being discussed (in secret) by one of the most powerful Congressional committees of all time.

I think it’s actually a great thing that MI6 has made a point of explicitly breaking the original circuitous cycle. If they don’t care about the sexuality of their agents, then it isn’t blackmailable, and thus they don’t have to care.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret, the books on the history of the Israeli nuclear program. He shared with me a quote from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, that I’ve been coming back to a lot lately:

“If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret.”

Secrecy, as Avner puts it, is contagious. It spreads. It goes from something that we might all agree ought to be secret — how to make a weapon of mass destruction, to take the canonical example. But from that point of apparent agreement, it seeps out, worming its way into the lives of everyone who comes near it — even into the bedroom, that most private of places.

  1. Executive Session CCLXXXVIII (8 February 1951), Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. []

12 Responses to “Cold War Sex, Cold War Secrecy”

  1. Paul Guinnessy says:

    I think the photo needs a credit. And I agree with you.

  2. […] Blog,” shares a great quote about the adverse effects of secrecy. In a post about “Cold War Sex, Cold War Secrecy” (in a nutshell: starting from recent news that Britain’s MI6 made public a dead […]

  3. Blake says:

    Particularly interesting post. I’m fortunate that in recent years I was able to come of age in a time where my homosexuality is considered infinitely less perverse than my obsession with subnuclear physics. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see that predilection viewed favorably however. One cannot have everything I suppose.

  4. kme says:

    What is perhaps most disturbing in this transcript is the implication that Mr Dean’s “folks” were fully appraised of what went on in the bedrooms of Oak Ridge.

  5. John F. Opie says:

    Actually the security aspects are that if an employee is keeping a secret from his employer, then there may well be other secrets being kept, or, more importantly, that if someone found out that he had a secret, but hadn’t told his employer, that fact could be used to blackmail, rather than whatever was being kept as a secret.

    Hence anyone who fails, for instance, to tell their employer that they like to smoke some reefer every weekend to unwind (because they think that would preclude them from getting the job), or that they enjoyed sex with prostitutes, their own sex, in groups, outside their marriage without the knowledge or consent of their partner, i.e. anything that falls outside of the normal hetero-normative behavior, is keeping a secret from them that they do not want exposed to their employer. That is the leverage a bad guy needs to flip someone.

    If you tell the employer up front that you have such proclivities – and you aren’t applying for a job that means you need to avoid such behavior because you’re an agent of the court, for instance (such as policeman, FBI, etc) – then either your employer wants to employ you and is willing to ignore your private behavior as long as it isn’t illegal and/or immoral (such as child sex or the like), or they want only the straight-and-narrow and won’t hire anyone out of the norm. Given that the latter means limiting your personnel pool drastically, the former is usually the case.

    In other words, the problem is in the lying about what you do, not the actual doing. That’s what gets you into trouble. Honesty really is the best policy.

    • I assume you mean today, not in the heady days of the Cold War, when “honesty” in a situation like this could get one banned from government employment for life, banned from university employment, or, at best, becoming an informer against ones friends and lovers.

      • John F. Opie says:

        Well, things started to change publicly towards the end of the 1970s, but intelligence workers have almost always had a fairly large leeway from their masters as long as they delivered.

        There have always been more than a fair number of heavy drinkers, serial adulterers and otherwise unpleasant folk involved with security work: since around the 1930s, when security clearances were first developed and proper vetting procedures were put into place (the UK led this, with the French not far behind: otherwise those who had the secrets simply decided who needed to know on an ad-hoc basis). It wasn’t until the FBI was created (1934 from the Bureau of Investigation, itself created in 1908 to enforce the Federal Government’s mandate to regulate interstate commerce) and was tasked with vetting folks for security clearances that the it also became a political tool.

        J. Edgar Hoover most certainly abused his office to do some “cultural cleansing”, but when one of the agencies wanted a specialist/scientist/code breaker/whatever, they usually didn’t care about the secrets, as long as they could get their man (expediencies of the service and all that). Honesty was the best policy, unless, of course, Hoover and his men decided that they could use you to find out secrets that would give them political leverage. That’s where the honesty could backfire: you’d get that job, but it would come with a huge cost because the FBI would try to turn you. But since the late 1950s, the government’s need for qualified professionals outweighed their distaste for people outside of the norm, and the collapse of McCarthyism meant that Hoover couldn’t fish with impunity. Not that he didn’t try: one of the worst things about him was that he always tried to twist things to his own agenda.

        But your average person with some secrets to hide? Depended on how willing they were to be blackmailed by Hoover. It was almost invariably a bluff, albeit a frightening one, and the FBI kept at it because they were successful in getting people with secrets to go to great lengths to avoid having those secrets displayed in any which, way or form. Granted, we live in more enlightened times, but the intelligence people, perhaps more than any, know how weak people can be (after all, it’s part of the tools of their own trade in HUMINT, of turning someone because of their secrets and unwillingness to be exposed) and do not expect their employees to be angels (and indeed straight-and-narrow folks, during the vetting process, often get more scrutiny because those investigating don’t believe they don’t have some sort of weakness: if anything, that mind-set (straight-and-narrow) is too rigid to be accepting of what they consider to be sordid behavior in the name of the greater good.

        And the man in your example didn’t lose his job because of his homosexuality, but rather because of his reckless behavior (getting drunk out of town and behaving the way he did), which would, for me, be an indication of very reckless behavior. That and hiding his arrest.

        • “And the man in your example didn’t lose his job because of his homosexuality, but rather because of his reckless behavior (getting drunk out of town and behaving the way he did), which would, for me, be an indication of very reckless behavior. That and hiding his arrest.”

          He wouldn’t have gotten his job if he had been honest about his homosexuality. (I wonder how self-conscious he even was of it, given how deeply he’d put himself in the closet.) The option you’re offering up is either 1. he somehow, magically, not have been homosexual, or 2. he never, ever act on it (something he almost pulled off). The arrest is part and parcel with homosexuality in the 1950s. Either way, you’re still talking about the apparatus of the security state deeply controlling the intimate lives of its participants. Which is entirely my point.

          (The behavior is “reckless” in the sense of “against his professional and personal self-interest,” with regards to the arrest, but other than that, they seem to have agreed that in and of itself it posed no security risk.)

          I’m also not limiting this to intelligence workers; the MI6 example is just the provoking one. I’m talking about areas of the federal government that employed tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, such as the AEC. The leeway in the AEC was not very wide — far less wide than it was during the Manhattan Project, for example — because all it would take is one scandal (such as this one) for the Joint Committee to decry them as “reckless,” and they did that with fair regularity.

  6. Lindzy says:

    RadioLab, the podcast, shed light on a similar story from the same era. It’s called the Turing Problem, and it is equally, if not more depressing than this story. If you feel like being sad (?), check it out:

  7. […] posted this quote before, from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, but it never gets old. Secrecy is contagious: If something […]