The good part of political crisis is the chance to become a more self-aware, more mature nation. But our shortcomings are almost too depressingly on display in the story of Edward Snowden. As regards the man, I’ll try to confine myself to what is factual, likely, and unlikely. Polarized versions leave some basics about him opaque—to a degree necessarily, because espionage and national security are involved.
Moreover, Snowden himself is the last person able (even when available) to tell us what his actions, in a broad sense, were about. He is (or was) so naïve about history and politics that, having hacked into millions of classified US intelligence documents and fled, he submitted petitions for asylum to twenty-one countries, some of which belong to NATO, and nearly all of which have extradition treaties with the US. He sent these petitions out of a holding area adjacent to the Moscow airport, apparently with the plan of flying to the haven of his choice, either with or without a cache of secrets. He reportedly withdrew, at Putin’s demand, even his asylum petition to Moscow, which would mean that he remains in Russia, four years later, on sufferance.
Hence, the normal course of espionage stories—from secrecy to revelation, from a blank in the public’s eyes to some sort of significance—is reversed. What Snowden revealed at the beginning was true and shattering; when he later publicly accepted Putin’s word that the Russian state does not conduct mass IT surveillance, he was like a cancer patient agreeing that in this hospital no one is sick.
It was of course the initial revelation that created and maintained him as a public figure. He showed that American secret warrants were sucking in all the customer records Verizon and other companies had, which rendered due process absurd in this connection. A warrant for a clandestine search of communications in an immense category is not a warrant; it is more like a police state’s fiat.
And this plea doesn’t exclude law-enforcement concerns. Contrary to official claims—and to Edward Jay Epstein’s claims in his new book about Snowden—a vast moat of data soup is hardly a good barrier to terrorism. Attention will go mostly toward collecting the data, storing them, and guarding them. In the United States, this delicious, dark-budget, fabulously costly project belongs in large part to giant, politically connected corporate contractors, who increase their profits and keep power at the top of their citadels through short-term employment contracts, even for highly responsible positions in the middle tier. Background checks, education and experience requirements, on-the-job training, and supervision often get shorted. Epstein is at any rate clear about the budgetary motivations that contributed to Snowden’s eye-popping access.
Snowden dropped out of high school at fifteen, obtained a GED later, but only strategically feinted at other degrees. When he applied to the contractor Dell, he had a due-diligence-saving leftover security clearance from the CIA, but Dell didn’t know, and seemingly didn’t want to know, as much about his short CIA career as I now do. None of the conflicting stories about his time in that agency suggest any respect for the heart of intelligence: gathering the important data and analyzing them in the service of policy development. His attitude would have been partly a matter of environment. Given the state of US governance lately, with GI-Bill-era professional civil servants running for cover from hyper-individualistic techno-libertarianism—Snowden’s own core philosophy from a young age—he wouldn’t have felt a lot of moral friction in doing whatever he happened to want with the data.
As for Snowden himself, in views, interests, personality, and pastimes, he is so blindingly familiar that I wonder why thousands of young American men didn’t also hack into national security data and defect. To explore how he didn’t end up as either an earnest, quietist family man or one of the guys who are going to troll this article, but rather as the icon of electronic privacy to some, and to others the nadir of a narcissistic and amoral generation, hot-dogging at any societal cost—well, I have no hope of adding to the extant lore, making a confident final judgment, or seeing why either would be a worthwhile goal. But the controversy itself seems to say a lot about the trouble we’re in as a nation—I was about to add, “and how to move beyond it,” or something like that, because that’s what you’re supposed to write: but that wouldn’t be honest. I’m convinced by now that we will just have to live through it. Anyway, extreme reactions, like Epstein’s, to Snowden speak to me of what we’ll have to live through.
Epstein is a journalist specializing in secrets: crime detection, business and finance and media backchannels, the hidden realities of politics and espionage—especially espionage. But in How America Lost Its Secrets, he pushes back as heavily and clumsily against lionization of Snowden as if this were his first book, written out of impulsive irritation that this previously obscure young man has managed to combine, in the public mind, the roles of 007 and an exiled murderer in a Greek tragedy.
Epstein’s ad hominem rhetoric is far from apt for the demands of the whole crucial subject on offer, state surveillance in the information age. He sneers at Snowden’s early preening online identity, his shallow girlfriend, and so on, inadvertently illustrating the small-mindedness and distraction that a privacy-poor culture gives rise to. Worse, in masking Snowden’s great technical skill (which is readily evident from other sources) both by silence and by innuendo, he is not merely petty and superficial, in an ethical sense: he also short-circuits his own book, by preventing himself from considering all that technology meant in the hack.
Thematically, he indicts Snowden again and again for “stealing” classified data, and largely elides the problems of differentiating treasonous spying from salutary leaking and whistleblowing. In law, anything “stolen,” even if passed on, normally stays “stolen.” But a news outlet can’t have illegally leaked information seized back, and can’t be restrained from publishing it, no matter where it comes from. The outlet has to guard only against doing actionable damage—personal, commercial, or to vital national interests. Regarding these, criminal courts have not been inclined to defer to the mere act of classification in an age when the act can be automatic and sweeping, can purport to cover documents that are freely published elsewhere, and often serves to protect against deserved official embarrassment.
Epstein either isn’t sensitive to these distinctions, or, perhaps buying into the Obama administration’s more aggressive policy on state secrecy, he doesn’t think they are important. He makes one mention of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers but does not give him credit for making public, at the risk of his freedom, documents that detailed how officials had falsified the prognosis for a long, bloody war. Epstein gives one very brief, sidelong nod to Watergate (noting that The Washington Post “brought down” Nixon) but says nothing about “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt, a high-level FBI agent (as revealed in 2005) whom few would have believed it right to prosecute for clandestinely putting journalists onto serious crimes at the center of government.
Moreover, How America Lost Its Secrets, in its first weeks, must be hitting quite an unsympathetic marketplace of patriotic news consumers. In one sphere after another, no one more bravely or decisively prevents the Trump Administration from careening into despotism than leakers, who reveal to the press that an outrage happened or was attempted, when they have been able to make no headway against it in private. They place first (as they are bound to), and before nondisclosure agreements, their oaths to defend the constitution. Epstein fudges this necessary hierarchy of commitments by, again and again, haughtily accusing Snowden of violating his “oath of secrecy,” when he never swore one, any more than a loyalty oath to a person. Wrong kind of polity in the author’s head.
All this doesn’t mean that governance, let alone intelligence operations, could work as a seminar on what the public interest might be. Laws and the constitution, interpreted by the courts, are supposed to represent the consensus on that. (Where there are competing public interests, it can—as Epstein mentions—actually happen that the same person spends years in jail for unauthorized disclosures yet receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in whistleblower rewards when he gets out.) And the duty to oppose legalized evil is clearly, if dauntingly, laid out in history. Since, as a trainee soldier, Snowden had volunteered to die for the constitution, he should arguably be willing to return home from Moscow and go on trial for it, rather than leave unchallenged in this ultimate forum the distance he objected to between how things are being done and how they should be done. The Civil Rights movement is a hard act to follow, but that’s an index of its meaningfulness.
Epstein is not interested in these rule-of-law issues that worry many of us. In fact, he motors steadily away from them: Snowden, in his telling, pocketed a mass of invaluable secrets and handed them to the Russians, inflicting untold costs on his own country and others, quite possibly including terrorist attacks that could have been prevented if not for him. This set of claims goes from tendentious to speculative to lurid, on rather rickety tracks of evidence.
I wonder about the amount of data copied and removed in the first place; in some passages of his book, Epstein uses the more careful word “compromised” or “touched” rather than “stolen” for the files; if it could have been taken, officials needed to behave as if it had; they would have undertaken laborious, costly, and disruptive remediation anyway. The result is of course deplorable, but does all the blame for it need to be directed at one person? What about the inherent fragility of such a system, which could also be compromised by accident or by some wholly pure-minded, constitutionally necessary breach (not hard to posit in early 2017)?
And we have to take on trust (not abundant these days) the connections drawn between alleged exposure of the putative cache to adversaries and other alleged events in the world. Snowden caused nothing like the no-brainer fallout from early WikiLeaks dumping of diplomatic cables en masse into the public sphere. I was livid myself about one revelation that would have given Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe a perfect pretext for stepping up torture, jailing, and bombing of the opposition: they accepted help from the US, though he had prohibited this—so their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, asked an American diplomat for discretion. This latest WikiLeaks release, of March 2017, is far more cautious in form, heavily redacted and reportedly representing only one percent of what is available—though the content is a different story, more on which below. It is, anyway, not unthinkable that Snowden has been influential on what is shown, and how, and why.
Amid such a range of revelation, as if from the little Coppertone girl to snuff films, and all that is said and felt about it, Epstein reserves his trust for sources testifying against Snowden. This would be more understandable and sympathetic if Epstein merely believed in the American government’s truthfulness and goodwill. But near the end of the book, he shows himself finessing a meeting with Snowden’s “attorney” (my quotation marks)—a close friend of Putin and a powerful operative, connected to several of the remaining oligarchs. Epstein evinces no doubt about the man’s innuendo (confirming previous statements out of Moscow) that Russia got valuable data from Snowden. But what about the Russian regime’s likely wish to seem a comprehensive winner in the Snowden affair? What about Snowden’s denial, which would jibe with many circumstances?
To draw a line from Snowden’s early career to a handover, Epstein posits a mole in America, a senior insider colleague who could have played on Snowden’s resentments, manipulated his ego, and pointed him over the high barriers to the files; he was only a mid-level employee, and it’s still unknown how he acquired up to twenty-four tightly secured passwords, downloaded in spite of sealed ports, and overcame other protections. But various scenarios of his acting alone are imaginable; one is that he asked for access as an off-the-books convenience—he was, after all, there to trouble-shoot, and he did that with brilliance: it would have been natural to give him the benefit of the doubt.
What Epstein can’t conjure up is a hypothesis for how a mole ran Snowden and left not the slightest scent on a trail packed with bloodhounds afterwards. The book contains several accounts of conventional lone moles handled from outside, some of them turning over secrets for decades before being caught. Epstein is mole-happy, like his idol and previous book subject, the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton, whose accusatory obsession caused diplomatic and institutional havoc, and perhaps the death of an innocent man under interrogation. It would in fact take Angleton-type determination for an author to hypnotize himself past one essential question. If, as in all previous known mole episodes, secrets were the prize, why manage so that they went off first to the cosmopolitan hub and spy nest Hong Kong, in the hands of a young man with an authority problem, who was then left free over several weeks to edit, destroy, display, share, or lose them, or give or sell them to whomever he wished?
If, on the other hand, Snowden himself was the prize in a long game, the publicity and propaganda treasure, there’s no mystery about his handlers: they were Julian Assange and other hacktivists, and allied radical journalists. That none of these are dedicated agents of any government (though they are powerfully anti-American) does not signify. Security politics are becoming globalized and cosmopolitan, in the most organic way. In the Me culture spreading out from America, nihilism and exhibitionism are reasons enough for breaking secrecy. And the bad behavior of the one really conspicuous superpower is an excellent pretext.
Pundits like Epstein, who are still deeply rooted in Cold War nationalist thinking, do not like the reality that American fortunes can no longer draw on the moral investment of WWII; that the rest of the world was promised further deposits and didn’t get the most valuable ones. We tout democracy, human rights, and transparent free markets, but we have declined to fully cultivate abroad and freely share the rule of law that makes them viable. Snowden provided a very persuasive heading for this withholding. Unlike drone strikes and other overreach of ours, warrantless surveillance outside the US—through the PRISM program, Snowden’s second major revelation—is comprehensively applied, enduringly secret, and apparently inexorable, an apt target for anti-authoritarian rage.
Privacy invasion is just one example of the routine power abuses abroad that most Americans never think about, but it is the basis for an otherwise stunning diversity of people—the German housewife, the African casual laborer, the Syrian refugee, the New Zealand farmer, and on and on—to fall in love with Edward Snowden and delight in America’s trouble and danger and shame. It isn’t a matter of exactly what happened, or why, or what to do about it. It’s (foreigners say) that this is just the kind of stuff we pull all the time. And now the loopiest conspiracy theory has a pretext: America spies on everyone, everywhere.
A cogent assertion is no doubt traveling around too, that the power of state intelligence always overbalances, falls, and breaks if it grows too large and heavy, like all other inordinate power. The new WikiLeaks release would seem to drive this home: the information is now about the CIA’s hijacking of ordinary electronic devices in order to spy on their users; a huge US advantage may thus have been taken apart in a single day, and could be turned against us in myriad ways. That objects are now centrally concerned makes modern intelligence easier to identify as an arms race, and no arms race is winnable in the long run—human nature and the structure of human societies doesn’t allow that. The US would have been far better off with openness and generosity. But whoops—we waited until rage in some sectors was absolutely implacable, giving us no choice but conflict.
The argument with which Epstein concludes, that comprehensive American surveillance is needed to protect the world from terrorism, wouldn’t go over well with foreigners (not that he is aiming it at them, which is irritating in itself, since they have more at stake than we Americans do: government surveillance of us has been rolled back). Most of them are closer to the front lines of terrorism than we are, and so practically and morally entitled to a far greater say than they now have concerning remedies. And though even we are aware that the safety argument was applied to protection against communism, we are not, like the Iranians, living in the aftermath of a democracy eliminated with the help of the CIA in the name of making the world safer for democracy.
What we might perhaps best contemplate at this point in our history is the idea of providence, in the simplest and most open version: good produces goods, both material and nonmaterial. I was at Harvard in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I knew a brilliant Chinese biochemistry PhD candidate, who had only the usual student visa. Shortly after the catastrophe, I heard he had permission to stay indefinitely as a political refugee, though he had never been politically active, as far as I knew. He and thousands of other Chinese studying in the US seem merely to have declared their real fear of returning, resigned themselves to not seeing their families again for years, if ever, and settled down to science and technology careers. After my acquaintance graduated, he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows, perhaps the world’s most prestigious post-doctoral institution. I didn’t follow his career afterwards, but it’s probable that with discoveries, patents, collaborations, and students taught and supervised, he was a billion-dollar value to the US even if he remained only a researcher in the academy. All we had to do to secure him was to behave decently while another country behaved outrageously.
All we would have had to do to prevent the Snowden affair was to have a slightly more accountable intelligence community—say, with less nepotism. Snowden’s credentials waiver, which allowed him into the CIA, is an utter mystery unless it was courtesy of his grandfather, a high-level FBI official. But I think we are years away from taking responsibility together, as a nation, so as to be able to do anything as obvious as adopting and keeping fairer and more practical rules.