“I did what I did because I was 21 years old and full of myself,” says Christopher Boyce. “My main motivation, at that point, was to hurt the secret apparatus of the federal government. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Boyce, now aged 60, spent 25 years in prison after being convicted of selling US government secrets to the Russians. In January 1980, after three years in custody, he escaped from a California penitentiary and went on the run, robbing several banks before being recaptured 19 months later. He now readily concedes that both the sale of the information and the robberies were major mistakes.
“My revelations would certainly have had far more impact if I hadn’t done what I did,” Boyce admits. “Because ultimately, the crimes became the story, and not what was actually revealed.”
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to condemn someone who commits treason, or somebody who runs around with a gun robbing banks. It’s another thing entirely to look beneath the veil at their motives and see what those motives reveal.”
In 1974, Boyce found himself working in the secretive “Black Vault” communications center of a US aerospace firm, where he had free access to allegedly “misrouted” Central Intelligence Agency cables. And like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden some 40 years later, he became increasingly angry at his government’s covert actions around the world.
What particularly incensed Boyce, however, were CIA discussions about removing Australia’s Prime Minister from power, along with CIA infiltration of Australian workers unions. At the time, Gough Whitlam was proposing the withdrawal of Australian troops from the Vietnam War and the closure of US military bases including Pine Gap. But Australia was nevertheless a loyal US ally, whom Boyce believed deserved to be treated with more respect.
So, given that Whitlam was deposed anyway in 1975, does Boyce think his revelations had any real effect?
“I do think that my revelations did have some sort of an impact,” says Boyce today. “Immediately following my trial for espionage in 1977, President Carter sent Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Australia for the express purpose of promising former Prime Minister Whitlam that the United States would never again interfere with the domestic affairs of Australia. To me, that was an accomplishment.”
Until very recently, Boyce believed that the USA was staying true to its word. But Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of massive NSA global surveillance – including Australia – have prompted him to wonder if he has been naïve.
“Most of the time, American domination of Australia is not heavy-handed in regards to Australian internal affairs,” suggests Boyce, who maintains an interest in “all things Australian” but only follows Canberra politics closely during elections.
“Nevertheless, Australia always fights in America’s wars. Australian foreign policy is American foreign policy. From the American standpoint, Australian status as an American client state is not about protecting Australia. America doesn’t have friends. It has interests.”
Boyce believes the USA “replaced the Brits” after Pearl Harbor and Australia today is a client state “like a very autonomous Alaska, so lightly harnessed as to make waywardness infrequent.”
So given all that, would he do it all again?
“No. I think Australians can take care of themselves. I think that Australian power brokers knew perfectly well of American interference in their internal political affairs, but I don’t believe the average Australian knew about it. I think alerting them to that was a good thing.”
What if WikiLeaks had existed back in the 1970s?
“The fact is, WikiLeaks didn’t exist back then, so it’s hard to answer that. Some people have asked me why I didn’t take what I learned to the press but the fact was I didn’t have the connections that someone like Daniel Ellsberg had. I didn’t know anybody at the New York Times and I probably wouldn’t have been taken seriously if I had approached someone there.”
Of course, that is exactly what happened to young Bradley Manning, who tried unsuccessfully to contact the New York Times and Washington Post before finally sending his files to WikiLeaks. And Christopher Boyce, who survived years of confinement in isolation, along with a savage gang beating and a murder attempt, is well aware of Manning’s plight.
“The government has treated Manning in a manner that amounts to torture for the express purpose of discouraging anyone else from doing what he did,” says Boyce, who particularly deplores Manning’s long spell of solitary confinement.
“Month after month of that becomes torture. It becomes destructive to a person’s psyche and to their sanity.”
But as he also notes, courage is contagious. “There would not have been an Edward Snowden if there hadn’t been a Bradley Manning. The next Snowden who comes along will be following in both of their footprints.”
So what would Christopher Boyce advise anyone thinking of blowing the whistle on the U.S. government today?
“I would advise them that if they are going to do it, don’t do what I did. Don’t cooperate with a foreign intelligence outfit. Figure out what your ultimate destination is. Go there first and then speak out. That way, that which you are revealing will be the story, and not the chase.”
Boyce says this is exactly what is happening to Edward Snowden today.
“The media is focusing too much on the chase instead of focusing on what he has revealed – which is a huge, secret apparatus of the federal government spying on the American people. I think that the excitement of the chase is causing the media to lose sight of what Snowden attempted to achieve.”
No doubt drawing on his own experiences as a whistle-blower on the run, Boyce is particularly concerned for Snowden’s safety.
“He’s going to have a difficult time even getting to Ecuador, or anywhere else. He’s going to discover that the police and the military there are not the friends of the left wing President. They are the friends of Washington. And eventually, that left wing government will be replaced.”
“When they capture him, they’re going to throw him into an isolation cell in a supermax prison and his life will become hell,” says Boyce.
“Their effort will be to, in effect, torture him before the world just as they have tortured Bradley Manning. Their aim is to put fear in the hearts of anyone else who is thinking of doing the same thing. So that anyone who even considers it will think: ‘How can I endure that?’”
It’s a brutally honest assessment from a man who has experienced the horrors of the US prison system first hand. And he doesn’t see much hope of Snowden escaping this destiny.
“The only way that he’s really going to be safe from the United States will be to just vanish on his own and not rely on the help of any government. In order for him to do that, he will have to maintain a total discipline in his personal actions – he will have to utterly cut himself off from everyone he has known, from his family, from his friends, and just go into deep cover. I personally think that’s the only true safety he’ll ever find.”
But Boyce also recognizes that Edward Snowden is acting on higher principles, with more important considerations than his own safety.
“I don’t think Snowden’s greatest fear is that the federal government is going to get him. I think his greatest fear is that he will have accomplished nothing, and that nothing will have changed.”
“As my wife Cait says, the average young American is more interested in if he has enough cream in his latte than in protecting his own civil liberties. I’m sure there are tens of millions of Americans that are outraged that they’re being spied on by their own government, but I don’t really think they’re ever going to do anything about it.”
“The secret apparatus of the United States government is organized and it’s powerful, whereas the American people are not. They’ve become like soft sheep. And if they decided to complain, how would they do that? I don’t see anyone in Congress calling for huge reforms.”
If that sounds like a bleak conclusion, consider the life experiences that inform it. Christopher Boyce today is a man who cherishes each day of freedom, even as the freedoms we all take for granted become increasing threatened. If we want to see a brighter future, it’s up to all of us to make it happen.
Cait and Christopher Boyce with Vince Font
NOTE: Chris and his wife Cait, who acted as his lawyer before marrying him when he was released from prison in September 2002, are about to release a book about his experiences in jail and on the run, her 15 year battle with cancer (she postponed treatment to help him get paroled), and their life together ever since. For news about their new book “The Falcon and The Snowman: American Sons” (co-authored by their friend Vince Font) please follow @CodenameFalcon on Twitter or their highly readable blog.