Treason: then and now 7



View Profile

It was the prominent 16th century courtier in Queen Elizabeth’s court, Sir John Harrington, who wrote, “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason”.

With that in mind, who could this be?

“I am a young American citizen who had access, by way of my job, to many top secret documents. I was so concerned about what I learned from these documents that I felt that they should be disclosed to show that the secret agenda of the US Government was clearly contrary to what they were telling the American public. I released many of these documents to expose the lies and cover-ups of the American government and in the cause of international peace and good-will.”

Edward Snowden?

It sure sounds like Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency contractor who pinched a whole treasure trove of sensitive documents before fleeing to Hong Kong where he released them to a selected journalist. Charged with the theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorised person and his passport revoked, Snowden sought sanctuary in Russia where he now lives.

Since then, Snowden has become the darling of the left. Named Person of the Year by The Guardian in 2013, elected to the symbolic position of Rector of Glasgow University in 2014 and showered with assorted awards as a courageous, fearless and noble whistleblower, Snowden has it all – well, all that is except his country.

But no, the quote above – yes, I invented it but it could well have been said by him in other ways – was from Tyler Kent.


In October 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, Kent was posted to the US Embassy in London as a cipher clerk – he was responsible for encoding and decoding sensitive documents, especially those between US President Franklin Roosevelt and the UK Government including Winston Churchill who had been recalled to the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty when war with Germany had broken out the month before.

Kent was alarmed by what he discovered – to his mind, the documents showed that Roosevelt was doing all he could to help the UK at a time when America was staunchly isolationalist. Roosevelt, running again for re-election later in 1940, was solemnly and publicly promising to keep the country out of the war.

He was introduced to a Conservative MP, Captain Archibald Ramsay, the leader of a pro-German and anti-semitic organisation called The Right Club and, via a Right Club member, Kent smuggled copies of sensitive documents to the Italian Embassy in London. Italy, an ally of Germany, had not yet entered the war and the documents found their way to the German Secret Service in Berlin.

What he didn’t know was that he was under surveillance by MI5 and in May, 1940, he was arrested after US Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (father of future US President John F Kennedy) waived his diplomatic immunity. MI5 found a huge number of stolen documents in his flat.

Kent was tried in secret, convicted and sentenced to seven years jail and, released after the war, was deported back to the USA. He died in obscurity in 1988 but, at least, he had got his country back even if he was reviled as a traitor.

He always maintained that he had been inspired by truly patriotic, honourable and noble motives – does that sound familiar? And he insisted that he had been shocked, dismayed, appalled and horrified by what he had discovered from the documents he saw and stole – does that sound familiar?

An interesting footnote to Tyler Kent’s story was the marvellously flexible approach to the matter by the Soviet Union and their devotees. When Kent was arrested, the USSR was an ally of Nazi Germany and, of course, that meant that assorted lefties at the time condemned his arrest and imprisonment as part of a huge cover-up of truly awful, but rather unspecified, US intentions. It was only after Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 and they became our gallant allies that assorted lefties suddenly decided Kent was a vile traitor who should have been locked up for a much, much longer time.

And when it comes to being open and transparent, you have to draw the line somewhere of course. Captain Ramsay MP had left the secret Right Club membership ledger with Kent and it was seized by MI5. To this day it remains under wraps – it was believed to have had a list of some 230 to 250 names including prominent members of the aristocracy, MPs, senior military personnel and business tycoons. You can take this openness just a bit too far, can’t you?

As for poor old Sir John Harrington, he is now chiefly remembered as the inventor of the first flush toilet. But at least he wasn’t a traitor.
What do you think of those who commit treason? Should it be classed as free speech? Tell us what your thoughts are today.

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. Most lies and secrets are wrong. So much harm hurt can come from even the smallest of lies for even the best of intentions. I imagine some info needs to be kept quiet in times of trouble but even there I feel it’s limited. I hate lies untruths and lies by omission.

  2. Difficult. And the two cases aren’t quite parallel. Kent was a diplomat in a privileged position in war time who was already suspected of spying for the Russians before his last posting. He had access to secret and coded documents which he leaked to an organisation he knew held views contrary to those of the government he served.

    Snowden was an independent contractor who had access to documents clearly showing that his government were definitely involved in wide surveillance of telecommunications on an international basis, which he leaked to selected journalists. He was not a spy for another country.

    I don’t think I approve of either of them, but I prefer Snowden.

  3. If you sign an oath that you will not release classified documents then you must honour that oath. Anything less shows a character with defective morals. Snowden has committed acts of treason, regardless of his motives.

    2 REPLY
  4. A traitor is someone who sells out his country…as Snowden has. I don,t believe his motives were honorable, I think he was hitting back for some advice to him is not to try that sort of thing in his new country,he may find they are not as understanding. Disgraceful person.Still ,he is in the right place now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *