The Falcon and the Pardon-Seeker

Maybe it is a good time to revisit the story of Christopher Boyce. Certainly Open Road Media, which just re-issued an E-book of Robert Lindsey’s The Falcon and the Snowman (1979), thinks so. I had not read the original, but I’d seen the movie — Timothy Hutton as Boyce (The Falcon) and Sean Penn as Daulton Lee (The Snowman). Now, having mastered Adele’s Kindle, I’m down with ORM’s decision.

Boyce and Lee grew up, pals, in 1960s Palos Verdes.  Boyce’s father, an ex-FBI agent, headed security at McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft; Lee’s, a WW II hero, was a doc.  Both families prayed Catholic, thought conservative, voted Republican.  (Boyce, himself, pulled  Gerry Ford’s lever in 1976.)  And these two sons-of-affluent orthodoxy smacked the USA with “one of the most damaging espionage conspiracies… in the postwar era.”

In 1973, Boyce took a $140/week clerical job at TRW Defense and Space Systems in Redondo Beach. TRW was AmeriKa’s main manufacturer of surveillance satellites, and Boyce soon gained access to Top Secret info about how it was eavesdropping on conversations, monitoring missile tests, spotting radar installations, essentially spying on the entire world, friend and foe, and, interfering in other countries’ domestic politics if they threatened to throw a spanner in these works.

Strafed by Vietnam and Watergate, and tripped out by the counter-culture, Boyce had, in Lindsey’s words, already developed a “repugnance for the hypocrisies of the Corporate State,” a “contempt for… mindless flag-waving,” and a realization that “senseless nationalism… would ultimately end in a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust.” His response was to recruit Lee, already established in outlaw-think through a thriving marijuana/ cocaine/heroin dealership, and sell copies of TRW’s stash to the Soviet Union.

Lindsey’s account of the development, execution and aftermath of this operation is solid and clearly written.  It progresses in assured, straightforward fashion.  It will not distract you with poetry.  It may not slow you with a delightful-to-contemplate phrase; but it will not trip you with an uncomfortably clotted one either. I only caught one error (Timothy Leary did not found The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.  John Griggs did), and I found Lindsey’s research thorough and  impressive.

Though Falcon offers neither footnotes nor bibliography, Lindsey seems to have interviewed Boyce and Lee and/or exchanged lengthy letters with them.  He spoke with their friends and family members, as well as law enforcement officers, former teachers and priests.  He covered Boyce’s and Lee’s trials for the New York Times and talked to their attorneys and members of their juries.  He seems to have accessed court transcripts, FBI files, probation department reports, psychiatric evaluations, and prison records.  The result is a convincing look into Boyce’s and Lee’s inner lives, as well as the outer world which influenced their actions.  These actions, if at times repetitive, like espionage itself, are well-captured and compellingly rendered.[1]

No one to whom I mentioned Christopher Boyce remembered him.  But they knew Edward Snowden, another young white male document leaker.  Snowden, who exposed the NSA’s mind-bogglingly expansive surveillance in 2013, remains the subject of best-selling books and widely viewed movies. While avoiding arrest, he has become the subject of a chorus of calls for a presidential pardon. I would not pardon Snowden myself, and, reading about Boyce, led me to track my thoughts to determine why.  Which led me to Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers in 1973, and William Davidon, the leader of the anti-war activists whose burglary of an FBI office in 1971 netted the documents which exposed COINTELPRO.

There are differences, as well as similarities.  Take motive. Each believed his actions politically necessary and morally correct.  Boyce took money, but I believe it a secondary consideration.  (He needed it to secure Lee’s participation.)  Ellsberg, viewed in hindsight through a lens of current parlance, clearly increased the marketability of his “brand”; but, given the risk he took and the uncertainty of the outcome he faced, I see no way he could have been driven by this.  Snowden, while awaiting his future to play out, has not elected to capitalize on his celebrity; whether he will is unknown.  And Davidson, not the least out of desire to avoid capture until the statute of limitations on his offenses had run, kept silent.

Boyce, Ellsberg and Snowden violated pledges to secrecy.  Davidon had taken no pledge.  Boyce, Ellsberg and Snowden knew exactly what they were making public.  Davidon did not. Davidon, Ellsberg and Snowden released their documents to the media. Boyce released his to the Soviets alone.  Boyce continued his actions until he was caught. Ellsberg turned himself in, once his documents had been made public.[2[ Davidon returned to his normal life and took his chances on apprehension. Snowden fled the country, accepting refuge in Russia, which, given its own domestic and international behavior, has left a bad taste in the mouths of some, and has resisted extradition.

This flight, among these distinctions, troubles me most.  The most compelling civil disobedients of my time — Ghandi, King — and many less well-known ones faced the consequences of their actions squarely.  So to differing degrees did Ellsberg, Boyce and Davidon.  Only Snowden has tried to avoid his.  I realize that it is easy for me, writing comfortable in my morning café, to fault him.  I also realize my advocacy of punishment for “wrong” probably stems from internal knots of my own, developed during my individualization.  But I find Snowden’s insistence on special treatment unsettling.

My friend — and fellow FOM contributor — Budd Shenkin disagrees. He especially thinks my comparing Snowden to Ellsberg off-base. Ellsberg, Budd argues, was well-connected and well-supported “within and without the Establishment,” while Snowden was an isolated “little guy.” Budd, who has read a great deal about the CIA, also believes it to be part of a Secret Security State, which has been running its own private, right-wing foreign policy for decades, and that any exposure of its working is to be encouraged.

I, who have read little about the CIA, concede that the more you believe in the existence of this Secret Security State, the more you would be drawn to Snowden.  But since I feel our foreign policy, if frequently wrong-headed, even occasionally evil, is more the result of competing, independent forces, rather than of uniform, calculated design, I discount Budd’s premise. I also did some research, which credits Ellsberg more than Budd would.  First, Ellsberg leaked documents as early as 1969, when support for the Vietnam War was widespread.  Second, he leaked the Pentagon Papers only months after Nixon had swamped McGovern, the anti-war candidate, by one of the largest margins in history, meaning Ellsberg faced prosecution by the Jason-Leatherface duo of Nixon and John Mitchell, beside whom, Snowden’s foes, Barack Obama and Eric Holder, seem like Glinda the Good and Olive Oil.[3]

Then there is the nature of the documents involved and the reasons for their release.  Ellsberg, as pointed out by Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic, was trying to stop an existing war from filling graveyards.  Snowden, was trying to stymie an imagined future “tyranny” from developing by limiting its ability to invade privacies. The documents Ellsberg released were several years old and, fairly certainly, did not jeopardize national security or put lives at risk. Snowden’s documents were current.  His supporters say he jeopardized no one and nothing.  His opponents say he did – but their “proof” has not been persuasive. Still, based on the body bags, I score the round for Ellsberg. [4]

Rebecca West, in her Cold War classic The New Meaning of Treason, noted our entrance into an age when “millions of people… by their employment in certain factories or offices, have access to documents which can deliver us over to death…” The danger for the rest of us, she warns, is our inability to know what default system any of these individuals bring to their employ.  “They might (be)… the more puritanical type of nudist who held it positively wrong to wear clothes, or they might have believed the world was flat, or they might have spoken with the dead at seances.  Though, by the luck of the draw (for those in West’s book)… communism was their chosen form of dissent.”

Few would find either Boyce’s or Snowden’s belief system as loopy or as threatening as the examples West set before us.  But Snowden was an ardent Libertarian, who supported the, at least minimally unhinged, presidential campaign of Ron Paul; and Boyce had arrived at his never-deviated-from conclusion about nation states at the age of 16.  (I confess, I’m sympathetic to Boyce’s view about nations, though it took me decades longer to get there, and it doesn’t determine how I act politically. I remain inclined to best-available-option, rather than a-pox-on-you-all approach.  And I’m unclear how delivering the secrets of one nation-state to another nation-state lessens the threat of either to everyone else.)

It seems of consequence to me that the two men I believe acted most honorably, Davidon and Ellsburg, were the oldest and most established of the four.  Ellsburg was 40, married with two children, holder of a PhD in economics, and employed by the RAND Corporation as a consultant. Davidon was 44, married, father of two young girls, a physics professor at Haverford College. Boyce and Snowden were in their 20s.  Boyce was a college drop-out, who had given up plans to be a priest and not replaced them.  Snowden was a high school drop-out, who had failed at becoming a soldier. Neither had been a husband or father.  In other words, they lacked a certain seasoning which only life can provide.  Their lack-of-connection to family and profession may have given them independence to act; it may also have kept them from accurately measuring what they were doing. I suspect that, as a defense to their isolation, failed plans and limited social development, they had developed overly-persuasive-to-themselves views of their “specialness” and the worth of their convictions, which made them seductively easy to act upon.

The greater point though, regardless of how you judge each of the actors under my consideration is, recalling West, that millions of actors out there, each with his own percolating motivation. Everyone, it seems to me, constructs a “self,” which eases his existence in the world.  (The world, in this set of my thinking, strikes me as an irritant and our “self” a pearl we weave around it, oyster-fashion.) These constructs take many forms — jazz musician, international banker, rabbi, long-distance trucker, neurosurgeon, crusader on behalf of this, whistle-blower against that, writer-scribbling-in-cafe — all developed as bulwarks against fear, magnets for reward, providers of meaning so we can daily leave our beds.  Some people find their self early and develop it consistently.  Others cast off one self and adopt another; but no self, I believe, has a monopoly on truth. The best chance for that comes from all of these selves ping-ponging one-against-another in the Great Ball-Blower of exchanged ideas.

Which gets us to another argument not-first-made-by-me.  Who elected Snowden to decide what gets known by whom?  Under our form of government, we vote for people to decide things like that. Now I know the result of these votes  is often a case of The Golden Rule as formulated by “The Wizard of Id”: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules”; and that defiers of this maxim often play a crucial role in moving our society forward.  But I fear, if rule-breakers believed they could be absolved before facing the consequences of their actions, there would be a mushrooming of them, and that these actions need not be limited to stuffing papers into envelopes or picketing the Whiite House.  I mean, Timothy McVeigh probably felt as equally deserving of a pre-trial pardon as Dorothy Day.

But as I previously implied, maybe this is rooted in my childhood.  Maybe I don’t want to see people get away with bad behavior because I am mad that, as a kid, I wasn’t sufficiently allowed to.  Certainly my inner voice’s commands to Snowden – “Don’t be such a chicken; get back here; face the music — echo the playing fields of West Philadelphia.  Childish of me, maybe — immature — but, still, that is how I roll. Then if he’s convicted — and, like Ellsberg, he may float — the other stuff — the good, the bad — can come in through his pre-sentencing report.  And if he’s in the can, his pardon may then be passed the president to weigh and measure.



1 Despite the book’s re-issuance coming 39 years after its narrative’s conclusioit does not  update its protagonists’ fates. Lee served 21 years of a 40-year sentence and was paroled in 1998. Boyce escaped a year and a half into his 40-year sentence and, during 19 months of freedom, robbed 17 banks which got him another 28 years.  He was paroled in 2002.

2 He was prosecuted for violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, but the trial judge dismissed the charges against him because of governmental misconduct.

3 The major pro–pardon argument is that Snowden’s revelations have led to significant limits being placed on the government’s ability to collect data on American citizens and set off a valuable debate about the balance between security and privacy.  Punishing Snowden, it is said, would deter other whistle-blowers from coming forward.

To the extent criminal statutes deter criminal conduct this may be true.  But if deterrence works, as this argument implies, then not prosecuting Snowden may encourage people to take less socially helpful actions in which they believe.  (See: my further discussion, above.)  Moreover, while Snowden’s contribution may have been valuable, I wonder whether his flight and pardon-begging deprives him of the moral purity and courage to encourage others.  Has he not merely encouraged those with a similar escape hatch in place and, in fact, made those without one think twice about acting?

4 Both Ellsburg and Boyce support Snowden.  I am sure Davidon would too.