In June 2013, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old National Security Agency contract employee, surfaced in Hong Kong with the sensational announcement that he was the source of top-secret American intelligence documents already being published in the Guardian and the Washington Post. The information he was bringing to light, he claimed, reflected systematic violation of individual privacy by the omniscient surveillance machinery of the U.S. government: “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded,” Snowden warned in a recorded video in which he explained his decision to steal the documents and go public.
In many quarters, Snowden was hailed as a courageous whistleblower, a man willing to risk his entire future to bring wrongdoing to light. Inside the intelligence community, a different set of views prevailed: Snowden was regarded as a defector, possibly under the control or direction of a foreign power. Whatever his motives, one thing was clear to insiders as they began to assess what Snowden had taken and what he had exposed: A huge volume of precious secrets had been lost, intelligence methods had been compromised, and valuable sources of intelligence had been shut down around the world.
Today, Snowden remains in Moscow, where he sought asylum after departing from Hong Kong and from where he occasionally chimes into America’s debates by way of tweets and streamed video appearances. The controversy over his role continues unabated, breaking along more or less predictable left/right lines. In Oliver Stone’s Snowden he is presented as a hero who discovers that “there’s something going on in the government that’s really wrong, and I can’t ignore it. I just want to get this data to the world.” In the intelligence community—and not only there—he continues to be regarded as a traitor, responsible for the greatest loss of intelligence secrets in our history.
What’s striking about the affair, now almost four years on, is how many unanswered questions remain: What, exactly, were Snowden’s motives? What did he steal? How did he do it? Did he act alone or with accomplices? With this book, we begin to get some answers—and when answers are not ascertainable, well-informed speculation clearly and responsibly labeled as such. Edward Jay Epstein is a veteran of this territory, having written a number of notable books illuminating the inner workings of secret agencies, including Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA (1989) and Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald (1978). In this searching inquiry, based upon careful study of documents and interviews with many of the key players, including in Hong Kong and Moscow, Epstein has produced not a whodunit but an important and compelling “howdunit.”
One of the most enduring mysteries is also one of the most important and basic: Why, exactly, did Snowden end up in Moscow? Snowden and his supporters have consistently maintained that Snowden was essentially trapped there by the U.S. government when it revoked his passport while he was in transit. Epstein successfully demolishes this confabulation. He produces a timeline of Snowden’s comings and goings in Hong Kong, including his visits to the Russian consulate and an 11-day period in which Snowden simply vanished from public view after a warrant had been issued for him, his whereabouts unknown to the FBI and the Hong Kong police. Snowden evidently relied upon Julian Assange, proprietor of WikiLeaks, for guidance on how to escape from Hong Kong to a safe haven.
In a phone call Snowden placed to Assange—then as now, holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London—Snowden was advised to go to Russia, despite what Assange called the “negative PR consequences.” WikiLeaks then used its resources to help Snowden do exactly that. Russian “special services,” evidently operating under the instructions of no less a figure than Vladimir Putin himself, enabled Snowden to board an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, despite his lack (at this juncture) of a valid passport.
Does the Russian connection make Snowden more of a spy than a whistleblower? Part of the case for his being a spy rests not only on Snowden’s choice of Moscow as a place of refuge, but on the nature of the material he lifted. Only a small portion of the material provided by Snowden and published by journalists was devoted to the domestic surveillance that Snowden was denouncing. A larger portion concerned the overseas locations of NSA bases, along with NSA sources and methods, including (among other things) what Epstein describes as “ingenious technology . . . for tapping into computers abroad that had been ‘air-gapped,’ or intentionally isolated from any network to protect highly sensitive information, such as missile telemetry, nuclear bomb development, and cyber-warfare capabilities.”
This is not the kind of material a whistleblower would ever disclose. It is exactly the kind of material that a spy would steal.
Yet in the end, Epstein does not settle on a characterization of Snowden as a spy. In one of the most intriguing portions of this book, he examines the possibility that Snowden is something of a hybrid, someone who blurs the distinction between traditional spy and whistleblower. In this analysis, Snowden is an idealist who possibly “became entangled in the plots of others,” presumably Russian intelligence. It is not a criticism of Epstein to observe that How America Lost Its Secrets does not provide a definitive answer; indeed, it is a virtue that his book is careful not to step beyond what the evidence allows.
Even as he navigates in the confines of uncertainty, however, Epstein performs the important public service of toppling the myths that Edward Snowden and his acolytes have spun to justify conduct that, as this book persuasively documents, had devastating consequences for American security.