How America Lost Its Secrets

  • By Edward Jay Epstein
  • Knopf
  • 368 pp.

Is the infamous leaker a patriot or pariah? A veteran author tries to untangle the truth.

How America Lost Its Secrets

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has become a worldwide celebrity because of his 2013 role in exposing our government’s indiscriminate capture of citizens’ phone and internet records. Based largely on media revelations from the files that Snowden smuggled out of the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), the courts moved quickly to declare this government program illegal.

Since then, scores of international honors have rained down on Snowden, and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was runner up to Pope Francis for Time Magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year.

Rare is the media outlet — print or electronic — that hasn’t retold the saga: NSA contractor Snowden downloads top-secret files to thumb drives, walks them out the door of a federal installation in Hawaii, flees to Hong Kong, releases some of his downloaded materials to select media, and at last seeks sanctuary in Russia, where he remains today. There, under Russian guardianship, Snowden has been interviewed by Vanity Fair, Wired, the Washington Post, and NBC News, among many other international outlets.

Today, Snowden is revered in many circles as a self-sacrificing teller of truth to power. Filmmaker Laura Poitras was awarded an Oscar for “CitizenFour,” her 2014 documentary shot mostly in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room after his escape.

And just last year, his story — or at least director Oliver Stone’s thriller-style adaptation of it — hit the big screen. Stone’s “Snowden” portrays his hero as an introspective boy-genius who gradually shapeshifts, mid-film, into a latter-day Jimmy Stewart, calmly unflinching in his moral duty.

Even so, there have been a few naysayers in the face of Snowden’s bottle-rocket rise from obscurity to global celebrity. Predictably, they’ve come mostly from Congress and the Feds, who are still looking to slap the cuffs on him. But “60 Minutes,” for one, has raised questions about Snowden’s motives and the extent of the damage to U.S. national interests that his breach occasioned.

Now along comes author Edward Jay Epstein. In How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft, Epstein plunges in boldly against the tide of kudos for young Snowden, suggesting that the boyish techie we read about or see onscreen is a singularly destructive player in the game of international espionage.

Snowden, declares Epstein, likely made off with a massive haul of potentially damaging national secrets ranging far beyond the files that exposed illegal NSA surveillance. And worse, according to Epstein, all the evidence suggests that Snowden — maybe a clueless dupe, perhaps a conscious agent of espionage, or possibly something in between — has delivered his haul to his Russian hosts and their intelligence-sharing partners the Chinese. Lacking further revelations, or an outright confession, the real extent of harm done is unknowable, although the DoD and intelligence community have called it unprecedented.

Epstein is no rookie, but rather an established author with a contrarian streak. Since 1969, he has written 15 print books on topics ranging from the Kennedy assassination, to the global diamond trade, to business and finance in Hollywood. Here’s a rundown of a few elements Epstein finds noteworthy in the Snowden saga:

  • Although he was a high-school dropout who fell far short of the minimum educational prerequisites for his CIA job, Snowden was still hired by the agency in 2009. Possibly related: Snowden had strong IT skills and, oh yes, he came from a “military” family that included his grandfather, a retired Coast Guard admiral then working as a senior FBI liaison to the intelligence community.
  • In 2013, effectively forced out of the CIA, Snowden moved on, his clearance intact, to a contractor position at Dell that gave him administrative access to many intelligence “compartments,” meaning the online sectors deliberately kept separate for reasons of security, with each requiring unique clearances. (Epstein sees the intel agencies’ almost casual reliance on consultants as enabling Snowden’s unauthorized penetration, which, he suggests, began here.)
  • Snowden applies for, and gets, a position at Booz Allen, another NSA contractor. It pays less than his Dell job and ostensibly means considerably less access to classified materials. Epstein, hinting darkly at another partner-spy already in place at this new assignment, questions why Snowden would take this seeming step backward. He also ponders how Snowden could have acquired the passwords of 14 other analysts, and thus gain encyclopedic access to NSA’s inner sanctum of secrets. (Oliver Stone seems to address this question obliquely by showing Snowden quietly galvanizing the submerged moral sensibilities of his techie coworkers. In the film, this Hawaiian-shirted band of lost boys is winkingly complicit in Snowden’s escape with his cache of classified materials.)
  • In Hong Kong, Snowden meets documentarian Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, and represents himself (on camera) as a “senior CIA advisor.” He spends 34 days in the territory, first in a luxury hotel and later in a mysterious safe house. (WikiLeaks says it paid the bill at the hotel and provided Snowden’s subsequent hideout. Epstein, well sourced on the workings of Chinese intelligence, questions this.)
  • While Snowden is under the radar at his safe house, the U.S. invalidates his passport (except for travel back home). Snowden falsely maintains that this revocation happened while he was in midair on the way to Russia and that it effectively “trapped” him there, a hero without a state. After a period in the transfer zone of the Moscow airport, he settles in Russia under a year’s grant of temporary asylum, recently extended to 2020.

So, has the wily fugitive who once styled himself with revealing self-aggrandizing aplomb, as Wolfking Awesomefox, turned over his haul to his accommodating hosts? Or has he bravely, as he has tweeted, not given them anything?

Epstein builds an admittedly speculative case for treason, and he supplements his narrative with fascinating digressions about intelligence practices in general and the sorry cavalcade of recent moles who have burrowed into secrets that should be better safeguarded.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in February 2017.]

Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in branding and advertising.

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