Book Review: “How America Lost Its Secrets” by Edward Jay Epstein

How America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein

Edward Jay Epstein presents a fascinating investigation of the Edward Snowden affair. This book is even more timely, as Snowden is making noises about wanting to return home, perhaps hoping for lenient treatment from a new administration. We shall see what happens.

Epstein digs beyond the Hollywood version, seeking to understand full story. He has discovered a gripping story, with many unanswered questions. It reads like a spy thriller—which it is.

As in any case involving espionage, much of the picture is obscured by secrecy and deception, to the degree that it is difficult to even know who all the players are. Snowden himself has created a version of the story, in his own statements, and in prize winning documentary and popular film. But these accounts are incomplete and far from satisfying.

(I, for one, never understood why he fled first to Hong Kong, part of China, and then to Moscow. These places are scarcely bastions of individual liberties, if that was his goal. That part of the story has never really made sense.)

The US government has consistently maintained a different story, reporting that Snowden stole vast amounts of secret data, much having nothing to do with domestic surveillance. The stolen information appears to have ended up in the hands of Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies, with serious consequences for US intelligence gathering. Aiding repressive foreign super powers is not exactly the act of a patriotic whistleblower.

The thrust of the story can be summarized by Epstein’s list of “Snowden’s Choices”.

Many of the reported circumstances of his activities, including his probes, contacts, theft, and escape, are disputed by his supporters. Many of his other activities are shrouded by the secrecy of the NSA. We do know, though, that Snowden made four extraordinary choices during the nine months period in 2013.” (p. 275)

  1. Why did he switch jobs from Dell, to Booze Hamilton?
  2. Why did he go first to Hong Kong?
  3. Why did he reveal himself publicly?
  4. Why did he go to Moscow?

Epstein reports many other interesting facts, with pretty solid evidence behind them. Epstein examines Snowden’s life and career, uncovering a complex and ambiguous history.

Snowden misrepresented his qualifications on the Internet, in the media, and on job applications. For example, he had little formal training and no advanced degree, contrary to his claims. Epstein notes apparent flaws in the security screening processes, which failed to catch these and other important red flags in Snowden’s behavior.

Epstein constructs a timeline of Snowden’s activities in the critical two year period around his defection. With so much clouded in secrecy and misinformation, it is difficult to know the full picture. It seems probably that he stole documents over something like a nine-month period, and apparently planned his escape with some care. If so, this is a troubling picture, for a number of reasons.

Epstein points out that if Snowden was mainly interested in blowing the whistle on domestic surveillance, he could have done that at any time, and did not need to flee the country.  If we don’t fully accept his public claims to be a selfless whistleblower, then what were his motives and goals?

His final theft at Booz Allen is very troubling.  What happened and how did he do it? The NSA claims he stole documents from multiple, highly secured repositories. If so, how did he, still a trainee without clearance, access these materials and sneak them out? Did he have help from someone unknown? Did he find a major hole in the security?

It is also troubling that he switched jobs to join Booze Hamilton at a lower pay and rank. Why? The job at Booze should have had little obvious appeal for Snowden.  But it did have access to the critical “level 3” files that were not available in his job with Dell. These secrets were the most important of all, and were of vital interest to foreign intelligence services.

Furthermore, upon taking up his new job, he immediately began to steal these level 3 secrets, suggesting that he deliberately maneuvered into the job for this very reason.

If this account is accurate, it is certainly a highly suspicious turn of events.

Epstein paints an overall picture of events that is ambiguous, but certainly could be read as deliberate espionage which has  benefited Russia.

Was Snowden working for Russia from the beginning? Or was he unwittingly working with others who work for Russia? Did he “walk in” to Russian intelligence on his own accord? Or was he somehow entrapped or tricked, until he had no choice?

One of the important unanswered questions is, what did Snowden take with him to Russia? The NSA says he had millions of files, including key information about how NSA had penetrated Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and other computer systems around the world.

If he gave this information to the Russians, they would be able to better evade US intelligence. Snowden also had personal knowledge of NSA’s capabilities, which would also aid Russian counter intelligence. All in all, even aside from the propaganda value for Putin, Snowden represented a potential gold mine for Russian intelligence.

US intelligence agencies claim that there is strong evidence that he did give this information to Russia, and probably other countries as well.  If so, this was a very damaging act of espionage that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance or civil liberties.

We can’t answer these questions because Snowden is living in Moscow, under the control of the Russian FSB. He has chosen to live a restricted life in Russia in order to escape the certainty of prosecution and imprisonment in the US.

Until recently, Snowden has shown little interest in returning home, at least without an amnesty that is unlikely to be offered. In recent weeks, he has offered to come back to the US, with statements to the effect that he isn’t afraid to do so. Perhaps Snowden thinks that the new US administration will greet him as a hero, and not as a traitor and a spy. (I’d be surprised if this happens, but who knows about the current administration?)

My own guess is that Snowden is unlikely to be released from Moscow, because he knows too much about Russia’s role in this affair, what data was given to what countries, and the identity of people who may have aided him. If he does return, he will surely face a long and detailed debriefing and interrogation. There are certainly plenty of questions I’d like him to answer.

  1. Edward Jay Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, The Man, and the Theft, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.


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