How America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein
Many of Edward Snowden’s detractors contend that while his 2013 NSA surveillance revelations began with good intentions, he acted egotistically and in so doing compromised the efficiency of America’s counterterrorism operations. Author Edward Jay Epstein takes these accusations a leap further: Snowden’s ultimate agenda was the delivery of numerous state secrets to mother Russia. A body of alleged evidence is assembled articulately in his book How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. Epstein asks some worthwhile questions, and it’s perfectly fair to resist the “Hero Patriot” narrative available in the media and the Oliver Stone film Snowden. However, Epstein’s take is often laughable due to its questionable logic and bitter, condescending tone. The resulting book is most certainly an engaging read, but as a convincing thesis it falls short.
The author’s take on Snowden is very specific. To Epstein, Snowden’s a bragging, delinquent youth who secured his first job at the CIA only via nepotism. Instead of the “senior intelligence official” he claimed to be in his initial cryptic approach to journalists, Snowden never rose above the unremarkable position of support technician. While working in his various positions in the CIA and NSA, the documents he stole weren’t limited to those involving the revelations of mass surveillance—he also swiped hundreds of thousands of containing identities of espionage sources and moles planted in adversary countries. All along his plan was to deliver these sources and intelligence gathering methods to Russia, where he’d be shielded politically and financially as a permanent defector. The NSA surveillance whistleblowing was a mere smokescreen to obscure his true mission; his initial stated intent to seek Asylum in Ecuador was a red herring to cast off suspicion.
Though certainly an extreme narrative, it’s worthy of exploration and shouldn’t be dismissed automatically. But throughout, Epstein weakens his case by undermining reader trust. He indulges in the exact methods of character assassination that Snowden warned are a danger of establishments equipped with unrestricted surveillance access. It’s totally unnecessary to mention that as a high schooler, Snowden had a high pitched voice, or made exaggerated boasts on internet forums regarding his accomplished muscle tone and minimal body fat. Epstein nonetheless invokes this. We’re also informed that Snowden’s girlfriend uses sex toys, and that Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who helped break the story in Hong Kong) previously ran a porn site named “HJ.” By indulging in these unrelated jabs, Epstein tries to stir up a creep-factor bias against these public figures, in hopes that you’ll be more prone to accept the forthcoming accusations of national betrayal.
In gathering evidence to support his theories, Epstein permits far too many logical gaps by using non-definitive clauses of speculation. These qualifying statements pad key moments in his arguments, among them: “It isn’t much of a leap to assume…It might have been that…Presumably…It might have been because…It doesn’t take a big stretch of imagination to conclude…” Worse, he’s audacious enough to serve the reader an unironic lecture on the principles of Ockham’s Razor and confirmation bias, as if journalists and the public are the ones guilty of peddling a forced narrative. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with the questions Epstein asks. But he delivers his answers with the smugness of one who believes himself to possess a monopoly on the truth, despite the weak speculative glue that holds his statements together.
He also leans on a concerning habit of claiming that because he himself could not find evidence to support one of Snowden’s claims, perhaps it’s untrue. Snowden states he was discharged from the military due to injuring both of his legs, and the veracity of this statement is questioned merely because Epstein himself was unable to uncover data to support it. Moreover, he suggests Snowden’s apparent plans for asylum in Ecuador was a smokescreen to hide an already-established Russian itinerary. All Epstein offers to corroborate this is his own failure to find evidence of South American travel plans. It’s difficult to trust an author’s bold narrative if key components are called into question simply because the author himself is unable to confirm them.
Readers in the anti-Snowden camp may very well find a lot to appreciate here. Those on differing areas of the ideological spectrum could walk away from How America Lost Its Secrets with varying degrees of satisfaction. If you generally disagree with this book’s logical approach, you can still reap enjoyment for the same reasons a liberal might enjoy watching Fox News; on one level you get a presentation of the indisputable facts, but with the added “entertainment value” of an often absurd bias. Russia recently extended Snowden’s asylum status through 2020, so it may be a while before the next stage of his fate is decided. In the meantime, this chapter of living history continues in suspense, and the debate continues. Epstein’s book provides a highly readable, if often questionable, take on subject with no clear cut answers.