We may never know the extent to which, or if at all, Edward Snowden cooperated with foreign powers when he perpetrated the greatest seizure of classified intelligence material in American history. This is a question that the veteran investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein sets out to answer in How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. While Epstein ultimately concludes that there is not enough evidence to indict the former National Security Agency contractor as a conscious double agent, he refutes several glaring claims in the self-serving story that Snowden and his allies in the journalistic and Internet “transparency” communities have weaved about his defection to Russia.
Whether Snowden was working with an adversary intelligence service is immaterial to the first and most important of Epstein’s refutations, which concerns the elementary distinction between “whistle-blowing” intended to expose the misdeeds of a democratic government and espionage in the service of an authoritarian foreign government or an anarchic clique like WikiLeaks. It seems quaint today, but it wasn’t long ago that referring to the latter activity by its proper name—treason—was uncontroversial.1The key fact, never disputed by any of Snowden’s ardent defenders, is that most of the information he stole and exposed to the world had absolutely nothing to do with domestic NSA surveillance of American citizens but rather the sources and methods of our overseas espionage operations. One of the many documents Snowden seized—and that we can now only assume lies in the hands of Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Iranian mullahs—is a so-called roadmap detailing intelligence “gaps” in NSA surveillance operations against Russia, China, and Iran. The possession of the roadmap implicitly informs these governments of how they can evade the watchful eyes of American spies. Another document Snowden stole was the intelligence community’s “black budget.” This document is highly prized by its targets, and Snowden accepted a lower-paying job at the private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to obtain it. “Switching jobs in order to widen one’s access to state secrets is an activity usually associated with penetration agents, not whistle-blowers,” Epstein observes.
One does not have to be a professional sleuth like Epstein to wonder what possible use the exposure of these files could serve other than aiding and abetting those who wish to do America and her allies harm. (As for Snowden’s chutzpadik claim that his leaks actually provided a service to the NSA by revealing the laxness of its security safeguards, this is, while true, like a burglar telling his victim that he ought to have installed better locks.) The much-publicized, yet never conclusively proven, NSA surveillance of Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone also falls under the rubric of information the disclosure of which served no beneficial purpose, however much it might offend the sensibilities of civil-liberties activists, not to mention the German chancellor. For there is absolutely nothing in the U.S. Constitution forbidding NSA snooping on foreign leaders, even those who are stout American allies such as Merkel. (Nor is there anything particularly new, or uniquely American, about it.) All that the release of this information did was harm German-American relations, buttress antipathy toward the United States, and divide the West against itself at a time of growing tension with the increasingly aggressive revisionist power to the East.
Indeed, casual observers cannot be faulted for sensing something fishy about the role of Russia in this entire saga. That there are still people who seriously deny Snowden has any untoward relationship with Russia’s security services and that his settling in Moscow is just a matter of happenstance is an indicator not just of widespread credulity but of growing hostility to traditional notions of patriotism. During the Cold War, an American intelligence worker who stole his country’s secrets, disappeared, and then resurfaced in Moscow—establishing himself there as a critic of the American national-security state—would almost uniformly be condemned as a traitor. Yet Snowden is still lauded by the great and the good as a courageous “whistle-blower.” A hagiographic documentary film about him, directed by one of his journalistic collaborators, won the Academy Award.
Epstein traces Snowden’s route from Hawaii (where he worked at a Booz Allen office servicing an NSA operations center) to Hong Kong (where he announced himself to the world) to Moscow, exposing along the way massive holes in the leaker’s story. One of them is that Snowden never obtained a visa for a Latin American country while he was in Hong Kong. This would seem to contradict Snowden’s later claim that he intended to seek asylum under a friendly leftist government like Ecuador’s but was prevented from doing so by Uncle Sam, which is how he ended up in Russia. Once in Moscow, Snowden disappeared for 39 days, claiming he spent this time in limbo residing at an express hotel in the airport transit lounge. In reality, he was spirited away for a debriefing by Russian intelligence officers, magically reappearing for a press conference alongside his newly acquired lawyer (who just so happens to serve on a board overseeing Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the KGB’s successor agency), at which he thanked the Russian government for granting him asylum.
Snowden’s theft is not the only source of outrage in this book; there’s also his ability to steal. Epstein criticizes the U.S. government’s outsourcing of intelligence work to private contractors, who ought to have spotted in Snowden a potential troublemaker. In 2012, as a contractor for Dell, Snowden organized a “CryptoParty” of so-called hacktivists on behalf of the Tor Project, which creates encryption software allowing users to disguise themselves on the Internet and evade government detection. (Private Chelsea, né Bradley, Manning used Tor to transfer diplomatic cables and military files to WikiLeaks.) According to a co-worker Epstein interviewed, Snowden showed up to work wearing a jacket with a caricature of the NSA insignia featuring an eagle clutching telephone lines.
There are many theories surrounding Snowden’s motivations and predicament, and Occam’s razor suggests that he probably wasn’t a deep undercover spy working on behalf of the Russians all along. This doesn’t mean he was some idealistic, latter-day Daniel Ellsberg. An enthusiast of former Republican Representative Ron Paul, the libertarian pedant who has called for the CIA’s dismantlement, Snowden emerged from what Epstein describes as “the hacking and game-playing culture” where resentment toward the U.S. government and traditional institutions of authority is de rigueur. According to an editor at the Guardian, a manifesto Snowden had written and asked to be published alongside the news stories of his data dump was “a bit Ted Kaczynski-ish.” Snowden was a disgruntled, immature narcissist with delusions of grandeur who walked into Russia’s arms not fully understanding what exactly he was getting into. His defection was facilitated by a “false flag” operation in which an intelligence “cut-out,” or middle-man in the form of WikiLeaks, manipulated his actions and movements, assisted by ideologically friendly journalists. Between the nihilistic Glenn Greenwald, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and the Russian government, a convergence of interests exists, and all three formed an opportunistic alliance to target their shared enemy: the United States and its intelligence agencies.
Throughout this detailed and engrossing book, Epstein’s reporting is meticulous and his writing dispassionate. And it arrives at an opportune moment, just after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in the American elections by utilizing WikiLeaks to disseminate emails it had hacked from Democratic Party accounts. Snowden’s revelations have, over the years, contributed to a general sense of paranoia and distrust of the United States, serving a broader Kremlin agenda of discrediting liberal democracy in general and America in particular. “Snowden did not create this new age of distrust,” Epstein writes, “but his disclosures greatly contributed to it, as well as to the worldwide distrust of the U.S. government.”
Some of those on the left who hailed Snowden back in 2013 must now look back upon their old enthusiasm with a fair degree of regret, comprehending the unholy alliance into which the former NSA contractor enlisted himself by partnering with Wikileaks and worming his way to Moscow, both of which made no effort to disguise their campaign against Hillary Clinton. Snowden may have had no contact with a foreign intelligence service during his time at the NSA. But he certainly has since, rendering moot the question of whether he was initially working on their behalf.
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