Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a polarizing figure.
Some consider him a whistleblower who sacrificed his career and freedom to inform the American people of government intrusion into their private lives. Edward Jay Epstein, author of How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft, suspects that Snowden’s motives were less than noble, and that, intentionally or not, his actions benefited the intelligence apparatus of an adversary nation.
In this interview, Epstein shares some of the lesser known facts behind the headlines, and opines on whether or not Snowden’s flight to Russia helped the country to “hack” our most recent presidential election.
SIGNATURE: You’ve been digging into the skullduggery behind some of our biggest headlines for a long time. Why did you choose Snowden for your next project?
EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN: To answer your question in some depth, I began as an undergraduate in college where I got access to all the members of the Warren Commission, which no one had ever done before or after, as well as their records, so before I had even graduated college, I found that some narratives that are accepted as unquestionable facts can be questioned. In the case of the Warren Commission, the unquestioned assertion was that it had done a totally exhaustive job. I found that while they had done an honest and good job, it wasn’t exhaustive and they hadn’t answered certain questions.
I’ve found, at least in my case, that an author keeps writing his first successful book over and over again. I kept looking for areas in which a narrative could be questioned, even if it turned out that the narrative was true, like in the case of the 9/11 Commission. I had planned to do a book about it, but when I found that the 9/11 Commission had actually done the job that it was supposed to do, I dropped that project and moved on to another one.
My search pattern has always been to look for something that comes from a single source and is maybe questionable. I realized that the entire narrative about Snowden — that he was a whistleblower, that he was a patriot who had only accidentally ended up in Russia and who had only helped America — came from a single, self-interested source who was actually in Moscow: Snowden himself. That interested me. If the world was depending on this one guy who was the perpetrator of a crime and was under the control of the Russian government, then I was going to look at the case de novo — blank slate — myself.
SR: If I had paid only a little bit of attention to the Snowden affair, I would be left with the following idea: Snowden had slipped away with a file indicating that the NSA had an illegal surveillance apparatus in the United States, and that Moscow had given him sanctuary from American persecution. That would be the narrative I would follow. The one you explore in your book is a good bit different.
EJE: If you, or anyone else, who simply read the accounts coming from the very small group of people — Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras, and Snowden’s lawyers, Ben Wizner, and Robert Tibbo, maybe another person or two — after they’d gone through the echo chamber of the media, you’d get the exact narrative you suggested: that Snowden only stole documents that exposed an illegal NSA program, and that because the US government had tricked and demonized him, his winding up in Moscow was the work of the Obama administration and that he was really trying to get to South America. You can see it all in the Oliver Stone movie; that’s the narrative.
The problem with that narrative, and it’s very simple, is that he didn’t take two, or three, or a thousand documents bearing on his whistleblowing. He stole, or as the House Intelligence Committee says, “removed,” 1.5 million files, some of which had as many as 32,000 pages. He took a massive amount of communication and signal intelligence: more than anyone in history has ever taken before. These included 900,000 military documents involving submarines, drones, planes, cyberwarfare — that had nothing to do with whistleblowing. Just imagine if someone robbing a bank found a few pages in the bank that showed it wasn’t giving the proper rebates to the customers and he took those to the media, and took the rest of the haul away: You wouldn’t call the guy a whistleblower, you’d call him a bank robber. That’s what Snowden did.
Snowden stopped in Hong Kong and had a disclosure operation there where he disclosed to reporters — all of whom were honest reporters, I would have done the same thing they did and so would have any other reporter — that he was with the NSA and then presented them with documents that showed that the NSA was involved with an illegal program. Whether they were illegal or just questionable is an argument, but let’s give him credit and say they were illegal. What he didn’t tell the reporters, these reporters who almost became like the prophets of a religion, was that he had met with officials of the Russian government. How do we know that? It’s because Vladimir Putin, of all people, decided to disclose that Snowden had met with Russian officials in Hong Kong before he was granted asylum. We know that he was in contact with the Russians, and he didn’t disclose that.
He also didn’t disclose that he removed 1.5 million documents. How do we know that he removed that large number? We’re talking about digital copies, it’s not like he took books and they’re missing from the library. In this digital world, you make a copy of something and the original remains where it is. The way we know is that he transferred them between computers and left a trail that he tried to erase but the NSA and Department of Defense was able to reconstruct. We know that because the House Intelligence Committee, the oversight committee for the NSA, did a report which was released in September 2016 that stated that the house committee had been given a damage assessment by the Department of Defense. That’s how we know that, but he didn’t tell the reporters this. He denied it. So the narrative begins that this is a whistleblower who made headlines by exposing some very unsavory programs that the NSA was involved in.
Everyone wants privacy — I don’t blame them — and to them, Snowden was a hero because he was standing up for his privacy. What they didn’t know was about his meeting with the Russians, and how many documents he took. At the time he took them and for many months after, the NSA didn’t know the total size of the damage because they didn’t know how he transferred them. It was the Department of Defense that actually had a team of between 200 and 250 intelligence officers reading through every document that pieced together the trail which led to a server in the cryptocenter where he was working and they were able to reconstruct the number of files he transferred to it. Snowden’s narrative was a false narrative in every respect. Like all false narratives, it had a number of true statements in it, and these can convince people that all of it can’t be lies. Some of what he said was truthful.
SR: How is it that someone like Snowden, who had very little formal background in what he did, get the clearance that he had? How did he manage to get these documents out of what I would have to assume is a very secure facility?
EJE: Snowden had very little formal education. He dropped out of high school in his first year. That’s not to say that he wasn’t smart, but he had no formal education. He loved to play games and loved computers, apparently. I was able to reconstruct that from his posts, tweets, and other social media.
His entire family worked for the government. His grandfather, Edward Barrett, was an admiral in the Coast Guard, and then worked for a CIA joint task force. Then he had a high position in the FBI. His father was a member of the Coast Guard. His mother worked for a court in Maryland. His sister worked for the Federal Judicial Center. Everyone in his family worked for the government, so it wasn’t surprising that he would look for a government job.
He tried to be in the military but was administratively discharged after a few months. He then worked as a security guard for a facility at the University of Maryland that was related to the NSA, so he got a security clearance. Then he joined the CIA as a TCO: a Technical Communications Officer. After he got fired, or forced to resign, he sought out private contractors.
Private contractors look for one thing besides a person who knows how to work a computer: They look for someone who already has a security clearance. When you leave the CIA, you keep your SCI (sensitive compartmentalized information) security clearance for two years, even if you leave under a cloud, like Snowden did. He had an SCI security clearance, so he was very valuable. A contractor wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of getting him a security clearance.
He went to Japan, where he worked for Dell SecureWorks: a private contractor. He did okay, and a few months later, he took the most valuable of information and went to work for Booz Allen. He offered to take a pay cut, and again, he was very valuable because he had an SCI clearance, so they snapped him up. He went to work at the center for five or six weeks, maybe less, and stole all the information there and left.
It started at the CIA: He got the security clearance there and kept it. The real scandal is not so much Snowden, but how American intelligence has privatized intelligence by having outside contractors run the computers. He’s part of the scandal.
SR: I assume that I wouldn’t be able to walk out with a flash drive very easily were I an employee of one of these agencies, and the information is compartmentalized, too. How was he able to get access to this and get it out? I would have thought that it was impossible until I read the book.
EJE: It was close to impossible. Snowden organized it very cleverly. He started work in the second week of April 2013 at Booz Allen, which had a contract at the cryptology center in Hawaii. It’s a tall, modern building at Wheeler Air Force Base. He went to work there, and because the information and methods they worked with were so secret, independent contractors like Snowden weren’t allowed to have what they called “fat” computers: portable computers with ports and storage capability. Everyone worked with the NSA equivalent of an iPad: a “thin computer.” It’s a security measure so no one can steal information.
What Snowden managed to do was to use his thin computer to transfer the data to a server at the center. He had the passwords to that, and according to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, he drove the twenty minute drive to the place he formerly worked, a place called the Kunia Tunnel, where he had left his old computer — a fat computer — and used it to download the information from the server into that computer. From there, he put it on thumb drives and took it.
The whole operation was extremely complicated for someone who had been working at the cryptological center for two weeks or something like that. Had he planned it in advance? Did he have someone working with him at his old job at the Kunia Tunnel that had his old computer? None of it is very clear to me. He didn’t have passwords for any of the compartments he entered. One way or the other, and I don’t know the way, I only know now that the FBI is willing to assume he did it alone and I’m reporting that, he managed to get the information downloaded to his old computer.
Leaving the NSA is not a big deal: Hundreds of people work at the center and they leave every night to go home. There’s a big parking lot and they walk out. I sort of went to the center and was only allowed in a few feet, but I could see the parking lot and the people leaving and they just stream out. They randomly check people, supposedly, but if there’s a random check I would say it’s one in a thousand, just observing it. Snowden walked out with the external drives, got on an airplane, and went to Hong Kong. That’s how he stole the information.
SR: I’d like to fast forward to a point in the story that I think is particularly salient right now. He took all of this information to Russia and disappeared for a while. We had nothing more from him than basically a promise that he wouldn’t turn over documents to them that were dangerous to our national security.
EJE: He didn’t promise anyone anything. The important thing here is that he met with what Putin called diplomats. Russian diplomats often have a second job, intelligence, especially in a place like Hong Kong. Putin used the plural, “diplomats,” not “a diplomat.” He might have met with them before he met with the journalists, but they knew, suddenly everyone in the world knew after he met with the journalists that he had a large number of documents. Maybe just 15,000, not 1.5 million, but they knew he had a large number. The Russians knew that and he was put on a Russian airplane and was flown to Russia.
Snowden’s passport was suspended in Hong Kong, so why the Russians put him on the plane is speculation. My guess is that they knew he was going to give them a lot of information, or they had already gotten it before he got on the plane. In any case, he flew to Russia and was taken off the plane in what they called a special operation. Then he disappeared from June 23 to July 14. During that time, no one in the outside world — no journalists — saw him. They didn’t see him getting off the plane, so the last time they saw him was in Hong Kong.
In that period, as the various American intelligence services I spoke with said, he was their man: He was in the palm of their hands. They didn’t have to threaten him with torture, they could just threaten him by sending him back to America. America was trying to get him back. He said he gave nothing to the Russians, but almost every spy who goes to Russia, or China, or everywhere else, says they gave nothing to them. That, simply, is another part of his narrative: that he gave nothing to Russia.
Since Putin jeopardized a summit conference that was scheduled with Obama for September, and Obama’s participation in, or attendance at, the Winter Olympic games that were scheduled in Sochi, he knew he was going to pay a high price. One has to assume that he also knew he would get something back for it.
SR: How bad has this hurt the United States? The topic of Russian hacking is top news right now. Can we see a connection between anything Snowden provided, our current political climate, and how the intelligence community was affected?
EJE: It’s hard to deny or neglect the connection between the damage that Snowden did and the presence of Russian intrusions in cyberspace. The moment the NSA determined Snowden had taken those 1.5 million files — and the Pentagon had gone through each and every one of those files which took four months around the clock — it didn’t matter whether he had given the files to Russia, or China, or journalists, or thrown them into the ocean, or burned them. The moment those files were taken out of the secure environment of the NSA in Hawaii, they had to be considered compromised. When a source, or the sources in these documents, are compromised, there’s only one thing to do: shut them down. You don’t know if the Russians got them, but if they did, they’ll arrest anyone connected with them, or use the channels to feed disinformation through.
What happened after Snowden removed those files was a massive case of self-destruction. The NSA had to close down every source in those files. That meant that, basically, the NSA and CIA suddenly went dark, and anyone who depended on them for intelligence on Russian and China, couldn’t anymore.
Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett described one of those files as “the keys to the kingdom:” It contained every gap in American coverage of Russia. That file gave whomever obtained it a road map to everything the United States, Britain, and Israeli intelligence was doing. All of the sources had to be closed down. The NSA was shut down in a large part of its coverage of adversary nations, which included North Korea, China, and Russia.
Now the question comes is what damage is done when the NSA goes dark. The answer is the old adage: When the cat is away, the mice will play. Russia, realizing that we had to shut down all of our sources, now had a tremendous amount of room to establish its own activities, which included not only hacking — and a lot of attention has been paid to hacking and false news — but that can’t be successful unless there’s a feedback loop: a way in which they’re able to assess where it’s going right and where it’s going wrong, and where it is achieving their purposes and where it is counterproductive. They needed to establish their own penetrations and everything that goes with them.
In the black period that started as soon as the NSA realized these documents were taken in the Spring of 2013, the agency had to find new sources. Whether they did or didn’t I don’t know, but the vice chairman of Booz Allen, and the former director of the NSA and former Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, said that generations of intelligence was lost by Snowden’s act. If I understand that properly, generations means intelligence that has been gathered over twenty years is one generation and it goes on. Huge amounts of sources were compromised, which left huge opportunities for Russia to become more aggressive, especially in cyberspace. I don’t think we can ignore the possible connection between the loss of our own ability to defend ourselves in cyberspace and the intrusion of other countries, including Russia.