Pushing Back on Snowden: A Review of "How America Lost Its Secrets"

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Edward Epstein began his career as an investigative journalist while he was still a graduate student at Cornell more than a half century ago, taking on the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination in his book, Inquest.  In the years since, he has afflicted the comfortable—as the saying goes—going after both government and the merely powerful (Hollywood, Armand Hammer, and the diamond industry to name a few).  He has also dabbled in conspiracy and espionage, trading at times on access to James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s notoriously suspicious counter intelligence chief at the height of the Cold War.

Epstein is credentialed.  Experienced.  Suspicious.  Relentless.  Detail oriented.  A fanatical researcher.  An enemy of inconsistency.

What a great choice to write a book, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft, about the NSA contractor responsible, in my view, for the greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of the Republic, and in the eyes of others, a persecuted whistleblower unjustly forced to seek refuge in an autocratic Russia by a powerful and unforgiving American surveillance state.

Epstein was a great choice because he did not from the jump—as so many others have—concede anything to Snowden’s and the Snowdenistas’ preferred narrative.  When I’ve reviewed interviews and encounters that others have had with Snowden—relentless (that’s sarcasm!) questioning from his ACLU lawyer as he was beamed into an adoring South by Southwest conference in Austin; inveterate NSA critic James Bamford’s audience in Moscow in search of confirmation for all of Bamford’s worst fears; Brian Williams embarrassing, near hagiographic interview on NBC; Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizen Four, which won an Academy Award (surprise!) to a standing ovation at the Oscars (double surprise!!)—through all of that, I’ve wondered if anyone was ever going to exhibit skepticism, maybe even a little aggressiveness, and ask this guy some tough questions while pointing out contradictions, inaccuracies, gaps, dissenting views, and errors of fact.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Epstein was never allowed to meet with Mr. Snowden, not even when he tried to leverage his (Epstein’s) relationship (a tie born out of their joint interest in the JFK-killing-conspiracy-industry) with Oliver Stone, the investor-writer-director of the movie Snowden (Full Disclosure: I stopped watching the Snowden DVD after 30 minutes.  It wasn’t just inaccurate, it was awful).

Despite that handicap (not getting to see Snowden with what would have been a set of pre-approved questions), Epstein has written a worthy book, nearly 300 pages of just paying attention to what Snowden has said and comparing it to other things Snowden has said and to still other things known or thought to be true.

With meticulous research and great attention to detail, he has created a portrayal of glaring inconsistencies and gaps that have largely been unexplored by what should be an inquiring press. 

He asks where was Snowden during those unaccounted-for first 11 days in Hong Kong, and who was his early “carer” (a term used by his Hong Kong lawyer)?  And why did he go to Hong Kong anyway, since the local government there was quite conscientious in observing its extradition treaty with the United States? 

Why did he tell the South China Morning Post about NSA’s alleged hacking of Chinese computers?  Was it to bid for special treatment and safe passage out of the former Crown Colony?

And what quid had Russian President Vladimir Putin received or was expecting to receive when he allowed Snowden—without a valid passport or Russian visa or a follow on visa to anywhere else—to board an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Snowden has also said that NSA wildly exaggerated the volume of data he stole.  Epstein puts Snowden’s (current) preferred count at just over 58,000 documents, the number of documents that Snowden gave to the journalists in Hong Kong.  Depending on when Snowden has been asked, the rest of the data was destroyed, or inaccessible by others or inaccessible by even him—the story seems to shift.

But Epstein points out that the charge that NSA was targeting the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, attributed to Snowden’s documents, came months after Snowden arrived in Moscow and was not in the Hong Kong cache.  What then was the provenance of that data, he asks, and on whose behalf was it released?

Epstein makes much of detailed timelines, mapping out the sequence of Snowden’s actions and comparing his storied descent into disillusion with when he contacted reporters, with when he changed jobs, with when he stole what information. 

He makes a strong case that rather than being a passive gatherer of programs that might threaten American privacy, Snowden was all along an aggressive hunter of how the American state collected foreign intelligence, even switching jobs from Dell to Booz Allen, just weeks before his flight to Hong Kong, to improve his access.

Epstein dabbles in the possibility that all this may have been done, wittingly or unwittingly, on behalf of a foreign state but conscientiously admits that that case is (as of yet) circumstantial.

All of which reinforces his basic premise that, until these many loose threads are explored and resolved, the jury should be out—way out—on any facile portrayal of Snowden as an idealistic whistleblower whose noble actions saved America from a relentless surveillance state while also doing no harm to American security.

A final point: Epstein spends time in his narrative looking at larger issues.  He takes on the Intelligence Community, for example, for its (over)reliance on contractors in sensitive positions and hammers the IC on how it clears those contractors.

And he also takes on an even larger question of history and culture, tying Snowden as a phenomenon to a raging culture of distrust, best exemplified in the United States by the insurgent Presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Ten lines from the end of the book, Epstein captures this powerful dynamic: 

“In this culture of distrust, whatever contradicts the innocent whistle blower narrative can be preemptively dismissed because Snowden, even though he remains ensconced in Moscow at an unknown location, remains the ultimate truth teller.”

This book pushes back on that naive assumption.  A life-long skeptic of government truth telling, Epstein suggests that in this case, the government guys may have it about right.

That, in itself, is worth clicking on to the Amazon website.

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