It’s been three and a half years since the pervasive covert surveillance of millions of Americans by the National Security Agency was exposed by Edward Snowden. In that time, public opinion has split into two camps: one that hails Snowden as a patriot for revealing countless classified NSA spying programs, and one that considers him a traitor. In How America Lost Its Secrets, Edward Jay Epstein, a partisan of the second camp, digs in even deeper. Snowden, he believes, is not just a traitor; he is also a spy. But for whom? Epstein argues that it could be China. Or possibly Russia. Or China and Russia… take your pick. This is a book long on conjecture, innuendo, and unsubstantiated claims; it reads like an adrenalized addendum to the discredited House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report on Snowden, which, when it came out last fall, was dismissed by former Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman as “aggressively dishonest.”
Edward Snowden was 29 years old when he reached out to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (who in turn reached out to Gellman), offering them a trove of top-secret NSA documents that, he said, would lay bare the agency’s massive domestic (and global) digital data-mining apparatus. At the time, Snowden, whose computer skills were largely self-taught, was working under contract with Dell as a systems administrator at the NSA’s regional cryptographic facility in Hawaii. He took that job after stints with the CIA in Switzerland safeguarding diplomats’ computers and with the NSA in Japan, where he was also a Dell contractor, teaching US military personnel how to shield their computers from hackers.
It was in Japan that Snowden became a “China specialist” with an expertise in Chinese cyber-counterintelligence, according to Luke Harding, author of The Snowden Files (2014), one of the first books published about him. Among other things, Snowden taught senior Defense Department personnel how to shield their data from the growing legion of Chinese hackers, the most notorious of which is Unit 61398, the elite cyber-combat arm of the People’s Liberation Army.
A professed Ron Paul–supporting libertarian who had grown increasingly disturbed by what he saw in his work as unconstitutional government overreach through sweeping, warrantless phone and data capture, Snowden signed on for the Dell job in Hawaii specifically to remove documents that revealed how the US government was spying on innocent Americans, often with the collusion of Internet service providers and tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple. He hoped to pass on this information to journalists who would then push it out into the world.
As a systems administrator with a high security clearance, Snowden was able to move around NSA computers without leaving a trace or arousing suspicion. (He also moved around his workplace wearing a hoodie from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that sported a caricature of the NSA logo: an eagle with headphones over its ears.) Once he’d downloaded the files he was after, Snowden took another NSA contracting job, this one with Booz Allen, also in Hawaii. If he could crack the system there, he would have access to a different cache of documents, many of which detailed the American surveillance state’s global reach.
Over a period of about six weeks, Snowden was able to pull the documents he was after, ferrying them out of the building on thumb drives. Having succeeded in that task, he quietly left Hawaii and decamped to Hong Kong, carrying four computers loaded with incriminating material. Once there, he worked on executing the next part of his plan: passing the purloined files along to well-known journalists who could alert the world to what the NSA was doing. He checked into the upscale Mira Hotel on May 20, 2013, under his own name and using his own credit card. Greenwald and Poitras met him there on June 3. Two days later, Greenwald’s first story, about a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over the phone data of millions of Americans to the NSA, ran in The Guardian. It threw the intelligence community, the Obama White House, the US government, and the world at large into a maelstrom that continues to this day.