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