Edward Jay Epstein’s Alternative Facts

Edward Jay Epstein’s Alternative Facts

Alternative Facts

A new book suggests Edward Snowden may have been a spy, but what it reveals is its author’s own duplicity.


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.

The Edward Snowden in How America Lost Its Secrets is a very different person from the one chronicled by Greenwald and Harding. Epstein expends thousands of words painting a portrait of the young whistle-blower as a disaffected (based on his pseudonymous posts on tech blogs, many made when Snowden was in his late teens and early 20s), shallow (his girlfriend is a sometime pole dancer), conniving (he took a hacking course in India), cheating (Epstein claims, with absolutely no evidence, that Snowden stole the answers to an NSA employment test), self-promoting (why else would he reveal himself as the source for Greenwald’s and Poitras’s revelations?), self-aggrandizing (no, he wasn’t a senior NSA employee who made $200,000 a year, as he told the two journalists, but rather an NSA contractor who made $133,000 in a position that didn’t give him the kind of access he needed to steal the documents he took), undereducated (he dropped out of high school) nothingburger. Such a fellow, Epstein suggests, would have been punching well above his weight to pull off such a remarkable heist by himself. And so, Epstein decides, he most likely didn’t.

Epstein offers numerous theories about who might have helped him. First, he posits that Snowden could have been assisted by someone at his workplace—a “witting accomplice,” in Epstein’s parlance, a fellow traveler who shared the same ideals and concerns as the callow, angry IT clerk. “It would be relatively easy to gain access to passwords,” Epstein writes, “if Snowden had the cooperation of an insider…. Such an accomplice could also help explain how Snowden was able to get the job at the [NSA data] center in the first place, how he knew in advance that he could find there the ‘lists’ of the NSA sources in foreign countries, and how he knew that there were security traps at the center.”

There’s only one problem with this explanation: As Epstein himself points out, “no witting accomplice was ever identified” by the FBI, which is a cagey way of saying that the “witting accomplice” theory is specious. Rather than putting it completely to rest, however, Epstein burrows in further: “This raises the more sinister possibility that the accomplice was not an amateur co-worker but a spy who was already in place when Snowden arrived.”

There’s only one problem with this narrative, however, and it’s the same one as before: No such foreign agent was ever found by the CIA, the NSA, or the FBI. After extensive investigations, the world’s best investigators came up empty-handed. But this doesn’t deter Epstein. Using a backhoe rather than a shovel, he points out that while no “hidden collaborator at the NSA” was ever found, this “does not necessarily mean such a mole does not exist.” True enough. And the same could be said of ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, and my doppelgänger in an undiscovered solar system. This is not investigative reporting. It’s not even reporting. It’s fantasy.

It’s also frustrating. One could go through Epstein’s book counting the number of times he uses “might have” and “could have” and “would have” and “must have”—phrases that denote speculation, not confirmation. For example: Snowden “might have had another motive prior to contacting journalists.” And: “Poitras must have found it flattering that a total stranger was willing to disclose to her in e-mails what he would not tell even his ‘most trusted confidante’….”

Similarly, one could point out all the assertions that have no basis in fact, that ignore known evidence, stretch the truth, or quote people who are making stuff up. But this would require quoting much of the book. So, in the interest of concision, here are three of the more egregious examples. First, Epstein says that Snowden sought contract work from Booz Allen because it would give him access to super-secret “Level 3 sensitive compartmented information,” documents “described by NSA executives as ‘the Keys to the Kingdom.’” The problem? There’s no such thing as “Level 3 sensitive compartmented information.” As Gellman, who helped do much of the original reporting on Snowden, pointed out in a Twitter storm, “there’s no such category at the NSA.”

Second, Epstein asserts that while Snowden arrived in Hong Kong on May 20, he didn’t check into the Mira until June 1, shortly before meeting with Greenwald and Poitras. In Epstein’s telling: “As I learned from the hotel staff, Snowden had registered there under his real name and used his own passport and credit card to secure the room, an odd choice if he was hiding out. He had checked in to the hotel not on May 20, as he had told the reporters, but on June 1, 2013.… Wherever Snowden stayed from May 20 to June 1, he apparently considered it a safe enough place from which to send Greenwald a ‘welcome package,’ as he called it, of twenty top secret NSA documents on May 25.” Later, Epstein suggests that Snowden was probably hanging out with his Chinese handlers during this period.

So let’s parse this, just for fun. Epstein “learns” that Snowden didn’t check into the hotel on May 20. What’s the proof? He offers none. What he actually says he learned from hotel staff is that Snowden checked in using his real name and credit card. Harding’s and Greenwald’s books, both of them published years ago, already report this. But by invoking hotel insiders, Epstein is conflating two separate things: his assertion that Snowden didn’t check into the hotel on May 20, and the fact that he used his real name and credit card when he did. In doing so, Epstein makes it seem that his assertion is based on statements from the hotel staff, even though what he says they told him was something else. It’s a cheap trick, but easy to miss. And it does that thing we’ve all become aware of in this age of fake news: It lets loose the worm of doubt. “Aha,” you might think, “where was Snowden? Maybe he was working with the Chinese after all…”

Finally, there’s the matter of exactly how many documents were stolen. We know that Snowden gave the reporters somewhere around 58,000 files. But how many files did he actually take? That precise number has never been established; even the NSA doesn’t know. Here’s Epstein again: “The NSA could say that 1.7 million documents had been selected in two dozen NSA computers during Snowden’s brief tenure at Booz Allen…. Of these ‘touched’ documents, some 1.3 million had been copied and moved to another computer.” While Epstein concedes that a certain number of these were duplicates, he suggests nonetheless that these “missing” files were Snowden’s real target; what he gave Greenwald and Poitras was perhaps a red herring, a diversion that let him hand off the rest to the bad guys.

The use of “touched” here is part of the problem. It’s a vague term that’s largely meaningless, especially in the context of Snowden’s theft, since he used a so-called “spider” program to crawl through the masses of documents in search of specific ones. That program was likely to “touch” many more files than it actually downloaded. By inflating the number and then wondering—wink, wink—what happened to the files that Snowden didn’t give to journalists, Epstein continues to imply that he was working against American interests at the behest of one or more of our adversaries, using the stolen files as collateral in his escape from American justice.

One fact in the Snowden saga that Epstein gets absolutely right— because it’s indisputable—is that on June 23, two weeks after revealing that he was the person behind the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden landed in Russia. Along the way, he was helped by Julian Assange and Assange’s WikiLeaks associate Sarah Harrison. After the United States revoked Snowden’s passport, Assange arranged for travel documents from his hosts at the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where Assange was self-exiled to avoid being extradited to Sweden on sexual-assault charges. The idea was to get Snowden from Hong Kong to a South American country that would be disposed to grant him asylum. To get there, he’d have to hopscotch across the world, avoiding countries and airspace where he could be intercepted by the US government, which had issued a warrant for his arrest. Again with Assange’s assistance and counsel, that meant traveling through Russia, where he ultimately landed.

Snowden ping-ponging from one US foe (China) to another (Russia) is a conspiracy theorist’s dream. No matter that by the time he arrived in Russia, his travel papers had been revoked by Ecuador. Or that Snowden appealed to 20 countries for asylum and was rejected by all of them. Or that he spent 39 days in a Russian airport’s transit hotel waiting as these appeals were summarily rejected, until he had little choice but to accept Russia’s offer of temporary asylum if he didn’t want to go back to the United States, where some lawmakers—including Congressman Mike Pompeo, now head of Trump’s CIA—called for his execution. As Harding pointed out in his book: “Snowden’s prolonged stay in Russia was involuntary. He got stuck. But it made his own story—his narrative of principled exile and flight—a lot more complicated. It was now easier for critics to paint him not as a political refugee but as a 21st century Kim Philby, the British defector who sold his country and its secrets to the Soviets.” That Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, had direct ties to the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency, and to Vladimir Putin himself also didn’t help things.

Not surprisingly, Epstein makes much of Snowden’s connection, through Kucherena, to the FSB: If Snowden wasn’t working for the Chinese, Epstein suggests, then he must be working with the Russians, who likely got to him when he was in Hong Kong. Or maybe the Russians recruited him well before that. Or maybe they made contact after he’d gone public via Greenwald, Gellman, and Poitras. Or, at the very least, maybe the Russians turned Snowden after he arrived in Moscow.

It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure story; all these plotlines are up for grabs. “In the Moscow scenario,” Epstein writes—meaning any of the possible ways he imagines Snowden came to be working for Putin and company—“the Russians acted to advance their interests. They gave Snowden sanctuary, support, perks, and high-level treatment because he agreed to cooperate with them. If Snowden had not paid this basic price of admission, either in Russia or before his arrival, he would not have been accorded this privileged status.”

There is only one word in the foregoing that is demonstrably true, and that word is “scenario.” Epstein is spinning a story here.

Edward Snowden has consistently said that he never handed over any NSA documents to the Chinese or Russians, and that his expert knowledge of cyber-defense ensured that no one would be able to gain access to them. In his letter to Gordon Humphrey, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire who had written to Snowden praising his actions, “provided you have not leaked information that would put in harm’s way any intelligence agent,” Snowden asserted that “no intelligence service—not even our own—has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect.… [O]ne of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest-threat counter-intelligence environments (i.e. China).” Interviewed by National Public Radio, Barton Gellman put it this way: “I believe that he has rendered himself incapable of opening the archive while he is in Russia. That is to say, it’s not only that he doesn’t have the key anymore, it’s that there’s nothing to open anymore.” And while we may never know if the Russians or Chinese obtained Snowden’s purloined files, one can’t help but wonder whether sophisticated spy agencies like the FSB and the Chinese MSS already had access to the material Snowden downloaded, given that the security was so lax at the facilities where he worked.

About one thing, however, there is no doubt: It was a coup for Putin to welcome the most wanted man in America to Russia. As the security blogger John Robb wrote recently, in addition to oil, Russia’s other main export is kompromat, the kind of information that can be used for blackmail (as in the alleged Trump “golden showers” video), as well as anything else that can be used to discredit or confuse an adversary. For a couple of years before the Russians began to seriously mess with the American electoral process, Snowden’s residence in Moscow—where he was allowed to move around freely, give talks via Skype, sit on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and criticize both WikiLeaks and the Russian government—had to be an embarrassment for Barack Obama. Inadvertently, Snowden became the embodiment of kompromat. Even without handing over files, he was valuable to the regime.

This fact was on display five months after Snowden took up residence in Moscow, when President Obama was asked at a press conference in Washington if Snowden should be granted amnesty. Rather than answering directly, Obama said this: “The fact of the matter is that the United States, for all our warts, is a country that abides by rule of law; that cares deeply about privacy; that cares about civil liberties; that cares about our Constitution. And as a consequence of these disclosures, we’ve got countries that do the things Mr. Snowden says he’s worried about, very explicitly engaging in surveillance of their own citizens; targeting political dissidents; targeting and suppressing the press; who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it’s the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations. And that’s a pretty distorted view of what’s going on out there.”

It should be remembered that Obama, who insisted even in his final week in office that Snowden should be put on trial, was no friend to government whistle-blowers. In his eight years as president, he used the Espionage Act to prosecute government employees who leaked information to the press more than all other presidents combined. Snowden, it should also be remembered, wasn’t covered under the Whistleblower Protection Act because, as an NSA contractor, he didn’t technically work for the government. And though former attorney general Eric Holder conceded, in retrospect, that Snowden performed a “public service” by forcing a public debate about government surveillance, it was a conversation that appears to have been lost on Obama. Rather than attempting to rein in the intelligence agencies, especially in light of Donald Trump’s election and all it portended, Obama expanded their reach days before he left office. His Executive Order 12333 enables the NSA to share raw-data intercepts with the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, and a dozen other government agencies. According to Charlie Savage, writing in The New York Times, with this new policy “the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.”

In the end, and quite ironically, there is something retrograde about a book claiming that Edward Snowden is essentially a tool of the Russians, when there’s no question that the same could be said of the current American president and a number of his cabinet members and advisers. With Putin’s pals Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Rex Tillerson, and Michael Flynn in power, it remains to be seen what use the Russian president will have for Edward Snowden. In the meantime, Edward Jay Epstein might consider investigating a real spy story: the arrest this January of four high-ranking Russian intelligence officers, all charged with treason for being American operatives, and the rumor that they were exposed as moles by someone in the Trump administration. If that turns out to be true, the question will not be how America lost its secrets, but why we’re giving them away.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy