'How America Lost Its Secrets' depicts a darker, complicated Edward Snowden

The image of Snowden as a brave idealist takes a pounding in this deeply researched biography.

How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft By Edward Jay Epstein Knopf 368 pp.

Even at the very moment that Edward Snowden was sitting for his historic televised interview at Hong Kong’s swanky Mira hotel in June of 2013 with reporters from The Guardian and The Washington Post, a version of his story was being very consciously crafted for public consumption.

In that narrative, the young computer whiz had held a lucrative job as a system administrator working for a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). While in that job, Snowden had become increasingly alarmed by what he was seeing: vast networks of coordinated surveillance and data harvesting being done by the US government, mostly targeting ordinary civilians without notification or warrant.

Motivated by his outraged conscience, this narrative goes, Snowden stole a large number of classified NSA documents and fled to Hong Kong, where he arranged to disclose his information to journalists. Later that month, with US federal charges now leveled against him, he sought asylum in Russia, where he remains to this day, giving remote-video conferences and receiving the plaudits of whistle-blowing advocates all over the world.

Oliver Stone made a movie about him, calling him “one of the greatest heroes of the 21st century.” “Citizenfour,” a documentary about him, won an Academy Award. Petitions calling for President Obama to pardon him have garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. He’s been the subject of movies, comic books, and folk songs. There’s even an Edward Snowden action figure.

How America Lost Its Secrets, the new book by longtime crime journalist Edward Jay Epstein, is a great slop bucket of ice-cold water poured on this received narrative.

Epstein interviewed as many of Snowden’s former supervisors and co-workers as were willing to speak on the record; he retraced Snowden’s footsteps in Hong Kong and Russia; he sifted the existing reporting on the whole subject in order to determine exactly what happened. And the picture that results from his research is very different from the popular folk tale of the world’s imagination. This is still a story of illegal and overreaching government surveillance programs about which every thinking person should be outraged. But in Epstein’s pages, Snowden is one of the bad guys – or worse, a witless dupe of the bad guys.

This Snowden was already deeply enamored of the computer “hacktivist” counterculture before he was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency, and although that job was very comfortable for a young 20-something with no higher formal education, he resigned from it to head off an official inquiry, suspected of hacking the agency’s computer system. This Snowden took his job at Booz Allen Hamilton already determined to steal classified files and, according to Epstein’s sources, couldn’t have stolen the materials that he did without help.

“Snowden thinks he’s smart,” former NSA director Michael Morell told Epstein, “but he was never in a position in his previous jobs to fully understand the immense capabilities of our Russian and Chinese counterparts.”

This Snowden lied about his salary at Booz Allen, lied about the importance of his position there, and lied about, for instance, his ability to spy directly on the emails and phone calls of President Obama. “Such career enhancements,” Epstein remarks, “reinforced the fact that Snowden altered reality when it suited his purpose with journalists.”

Most damningly, this Snowden didn’t just steal files relating to the NSA’s mass-surveillance systems; he stole vast tranches of other files and the classified details of many secret methods and programs. These revelations, Epstein sternly tells his readers, “compromised a system, duly authorized by Congress and the president, that had been the government’s single most effective tool for learning in advance about attacks in America and Europe by jihadist terrorists.”

Epstein reminds readers of one unsettling detail after another from the Snowden story, details that tend to get airbrushed from more celebratory accounts. The popular characterization of Snowden – as an idealist motivated by patriotism even at great personal risk – takes an unrecoverable pounding in these pages, and his frequently repeated contention that his actions have resulted in no harm to any US living assets suddenly looks incomplete without a big “yet” added on.

It’s a more complicated account, darker and more riddled with conflicting motives. It would be a mistake, Epstein warns, to assume that Snowden’s actions were “simply an exercise in narcissism,” but the alternatives he presents aren’t any more attractive. And against the simplistic Hollywood narrative of a lone hero “speaking truth to power,” “How America Lost Its Secrets” now poses an indispensable counterpoint.

Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this review misidentified Michael Morell.]

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