How America Lost Its Secrets

Title:                      How America Lost Its Secrets

Author:                  Edward Jay Epstein

Epstein, Edward Jay (2017). How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, The Man And The Theft. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2016026940



Date Updated:  December 12, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Review by Nicholas Lemann[2]

People who reveal secrets are either heroes or betrayers, depending on what the secrets are and on the inclinations of the audience for them. In the case of Edward Snowden, who took and then released a great deal of internal data from the National Security Agency in 2013, his admirers have campaigned for a last-minute pardon by President Obama, but Donald Trump has mused that execution might be more appropriate. Journalism based on Snowden’s revelations won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014, and the Oscar for best documentary in 2015; on the other hand, many American government officials think Snowden, who lives in Russia, should be brought home and prosecuted for revealing classified information.

In 2014, Edward Jay Epstein, the veteran writer on espionage, published a provocative article in The Wall Street Journal proposing another way of looking at Snowden: as a spy. Epstein wrote that an unnamed “former member of President Obama’s cabinet” had told him “that there are only three possible explanations for the Snowden heist: 1) It was a Russian espionage operation; 2) It was a Chinese espionage operation; 3) It was a joint Sino-Russian operation.”

Now Epstein has produced a long, detailed book elaborating on his theory. Snowden is known for having revealed that the N.S.A. was illegally spying on American citizens, but Epstein says that he actually took almost a million documents that had nothing to do with that, which he didn’t give to journalists. What happened to them? How did a relatively lowly nonemployee at the agency, without much official access, manage to get all that material in the first place? Why did he choose to announce himself to the world from Hong Kong, and why has he remained in Moscow since he left Hong Kong?

You can see the outlines of a coherent hypothesis in How America Lost Its Secrets. Perhaps Snowden was planted at the N.S.A. by either Russia or China, or by both. Perhaps while he was there he worked with other, as yet undetected, insiders who were also serving foreign powers. Perhaps in Hong Kong he put himself into the care of Chinese handlers who debriefed him extensively during the nearly two weeks between his arrival and his self-outing. Perhaps the same thing happened in Moscow during the first 37 days after he landed there, when he seems to have been hiding somewhere inside the airport security perimeter. Perhaps his reward for, in effect, defecting has been the odd protected life in Russia that celebrated spies like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess previously enjoyed. Perhaps his media-abetted role as a whistle-blower was merely a counterintuitive (because it was so public) new form of cover.

Epstein proves none of this. How America Lost Its Secrets is an impressively fluffy and golden-brown wobbly soufflé of speculation, full of anonymous sourcing and suppositional language like “it seems plausible to believe” or “it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to conclude.” Epstein’s first book, Inquest, published more than 50 years ago, featured another mysterious young man who spent time in Moscow, Lee Harvey Oswald. This book has a greatest-hits feeling, because it touches on several of Epstein’s long-running preoccupations: Russia; the movie and media businesses; the gullibility of liberals; and, especially, the world of penetration, exfiltration, false flags and other aspects of counterintelligence. The spirit of James Jesus Angleton, the C.I.A.’s mole-obsessed counterintelligence chief during the peak years of the Cold War and evidently a mentor to Epstein (he’s mentioned several times), hovers over these pages.[3]

Sometimes it seems as if Epstein so much enjoys exploring the twists and turns in Snowden’s story—his encounter with Snowden’s mysterious lawyer in Moscow, Anatoly Kucherena, is especially memorable—that he doesn’t have an overwhelming need to settle the questions he raises. The sentence from The Wall Street Journal quoted above appears almost verbatim in the book, but it’s immediately followed by this: “These severe accusations generated much heat but little light. They were not accompanied by any evidence showing that Snowden had acted in concert with any foreign power in stealing the files or, for that matter, that he was not acting out of his own personal convictions, no matter how misguided they might have been.” But then Epstein spends many more pages considering, and not dismissing, the very same severe accusations, and ends by saying that “Snowden’s theft of state secrets . . . had evolved, deliberately or not, but necessarily, into a mission of disclosing key national secrets to a foreign power.”

This is Epstein’s primary conclusion: Even if the American public was a partial beneficiary of Snowden’s revelations, the main beneficiary was Russia, which to his mind couldn’t possibly have failed to take possession of all the material Snowden took from the N.S.A. Whatever caveats he uses and whatever hard evidence he hasn’t found, Epstein clearly wants to leave readers with the impression that Snowden remains in Russia as a result of a deal exchanging his information for its protection. He repeatedly hints that he has reason to be more certain about his conclusion than he’s able to say in print; for one tantalizing example, among the names on a list of people he thanks for their “insights, erudition and criticisms” after reading part of the manuscript is the outgoing secretary of defense, Ash Carter.

Snowden, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and their immediate circle of allies come from a radically libertarian hacker culture that, most of the time, doesn’t believe there should be an N.S.A. at all, whether or not it remains within the confines of its legal charter. Epstein, conversely, is a strong supporter of the agency’s official mission of “communication intercepts,” which he sees as an essential element in the United States’ ability to participate in “the game of nations.” To him one of the lessons of the Snowden case is that the agency’s reliance on private contractors like Snowden instead of career employees has made it dangerously vulnerable to security breaches.

It’s an irony of the years since the Reagan revolution that one political strain in the United States, suspicion of big government, has led to spending and staffing limits that have pushed the N.S.A. into the low-security private marketplace to perform its ever-expanding mission. (The contractor that employed Snowden had been acquired by a private equity firm that was pressuring it to cut costs, and elaborate background checks are expensive.) That conflicts with another strain of modern conservatism, support for a vast national-security apparatus. Whatever his motive, Snowden found a way to arbitrage that contradiction.

The age of the internet, Vladimir Putin, Snowden and WikiLeaks has generated its own particular form of disruption around how we think about the revelation of government secrets. Traditional spies seem far less important these days, because unclubbable, technically adept people can do that kind of work far more effectively. The press, at least for now, has assumed a larger role in the ecosystem of revelation, because hackers prefer finding partners in the mainstream media to simply releasing information on their own. But this new set of arrangements makes journalists look more like conduits and contextualizers, and less like originators of information. Reporters aren’t supposed to be hackers themselves (see the News of the World scandals in London five years ago), but they’re not capable of resisting juicy information that others have hacked, no matter how unsavory the purpose (see the ubiquitous coverage of John Podesta’s Russian-hacked private emails during the fall campaign).

Journalists are quite comfortable with the idea of the news media uncovering government secrets that should not have been secret in the first place. This may be a role whose run is coming to an end. Information is too copious and flows too freely, and there are too many players in the revelation game—political activists, foreign governments, tricksters, self-publishers—for journalists to function as the arbiters of revelation. If there isn’t any longer going to be one trustworthy group in society, the established press, that acts as a benign check on excessive government secrecy, the discussion of what should and shouldn’t be secret becomes a lot messier.

Epstein has long been annoyed with the idea of the press as the key actor in secrecy dramas, digging up what the public should know but not exposing everything willy-nilly. Way back in 1974, he published an article in Commentary called “Did the Press Uncover Watergate?” (His answer: no.) This time around, his concern seems to be half with the celebratory closed loop between Snowden and the journalists who covered him, and half with the causes and consequences of a major security breach at the N.S.A. The heart of the matter is the second of these concerns, not the first. In the Snowden affair, the press didn’t decide what stayed secret, and neither did Congress, the White House or the N.S.A. Snowden did.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[4]

The image of Edward Snowden as champion whistleblower—propagated by a generally friendly, sometimes fawning media[5]—is irreconcilable with the account articulated in How America Lost Its Secrets. Author Edward Epstein first came to the attention of many in the Intelligence Community with his book Legend[6] about Lee Harvey Oswald, Yuri Nosenko, and the JFK assassination. It was there that he argued Nosenko was a KGB provocation—not a genuine defector. The source of this controversial view, he later admitted, was former CIA counterintelligence officer, James Angleton. History suggests that Epstein was wrong about Nosenko. Now, using multiple sources, is he right about Snowden?

The central theme of How America Lost Its Secrets is how and why Snowden violated his oath and stole classified information that he gave to journalists and foreign nations. A corollary question is whether he was also a source of classified material for Chinese and Russian intelligence.

With those issues in mind, Epstein turns to Snowden’s credentials: Snowden was a high school dropout who failed to complete army basic training; at CIA, a “derogatory” performance rating forced his resignation. He cheated on the entrance exam when he applied to NSA and demanded a senior ranking position (which was not granted). He lied about his educational achievements, embellished the titles of various positions he had held, and faked illnesses when convenient. Nonetheless, he was an accomplished “hacktivist” who managed to retain his clearances and become a computer systems administrator with Dell Corporation, where he began to steal classified material.

Epstein examines Snowden’s carefully planned chronology of theft. His research for the book confirms Snowden’s own account about the files he stole from Dell. Those acquired later at Booz, Allen, Hamilton (BAH), however, were a different matter: they were more highly classified than those at Dell and Snowden did not have access. Just how he managed to acquire them remains a mystery, but NSA’s subsequent damage assessment was that “more than one million of them had been moved by [the] unauthorized party.” (p. 138)

Before he left BAH in Hawaii, Snowden made elaborate arrangements with journalists that led to a meeting in Hong Kong. Epstein went there as well, and traced Snowden’s actions. Epstein soon discovered anomalies in the timeline Snowden had provided and discrepancies in the events he claimed had taken place; for example, although he told journalists who interviewed him that he had been at the Mira Hotel since his arrival on 20 May 2013, hotel records showed he had not checked in until 1 June. Where had he been in the interim? One of his Hong Kong lawyers, Albert Ho, said Snowden stayed at “a residence arranged for him by a party Snowden knew prior to his arrival.” (p. 82) Epstein suggests it is not unreasonable to assume that during this time, the Chinese managed “to drain the contents of the laptop that Snowden brought to Hong Kong.” He cites several other sources who reached the same conclusion. (p. 180)

By the time Snowden decided to leave Hong Kong, his credit cards had been nullified and his passport cancelled. Yet after meeting with Russian officials—and without hindrance from the Chinese—he boarded an Aeroflot flight with neither a visa nor a valid passport. After arriving in Moscow, Snowden spent several weeks incommunicado. Surely, Epstein suggests, he was being debriefed by Russian intelligence and security services.

Prior to leaving Hong Kong, Snowden provided some 50 million documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras taken from the Dell downloads, which Greenwald and Poitras then began releasing to the media; however, Snowden claimed he did not release the more classified material acquired from BAH. In fact, according to one report, he claimed to have destroyed the files for patriotic reasons. Yet months after arriving in Moscow, a story alleging that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone had been monitored appeared in Der Spiegel, (p. 287) a fact that was not in the Dell documents.

How America Lost Its Secrets analyzes these events and Snowden’s relations with the press, and explores a variety of possible motivations. While Epstein sees some benefit from the selected disclosures, he concludes that the persistent assertions by the media that Snowden was just a splendid whistleblower are implausible. Put another way, it is unlikely that the Chinese and Russians were aiding Snowden as a humanitarian gesture. The history of these intelligence services suggests Snowden earned their protection because he was a valuable source and gave or allowed them access to all his stolen files. Few counterintelligence officers would disagree.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance—at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Nicholas Lemann, “Is Edward Snowden a Spy? A New Book Calls Him One,” in The New York Times (January 9, 2017). Downloaded January 18, 2017. Nicholas Lemann is the Pulitzer-Moore professor of journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker. A version of this review appears in print on January 15, 2017, on Page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Hero, Traitor or Spy?”

[3] Not in Lehman’s review, but Epstein also wrote Epstein, Edward Jay (2014). James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right? New York: FastTrack Press. See also, Epstein, Edward Jay (1991). Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB & the CIA. New York: Random House, for a rebuttal of Epstein’s credibility as an analyst of the Intelligence Community.

[4] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, p.118). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[5] See for example: Nicholas Lemann, “Is Edward Snowden a Spy? A New Book Calls Him One,” New York Times, (9 January 2017), Mike (“Mish”) Shedlock, “Superhero Snowden Trashed in Absurd WSJ Op-Ed,” (blog), 2 January 2017; Seth Rosenfeld, —How America Lost Its Secrets,’ by Jay Epstein,” San Francisco Chronicle (20 January 2017).

[6] Epstein, Jay Edward (1978). Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald. New York: Reader’s Digest Press


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