Edward Snowden speaks via video link at a 2016 news conference for the launch of a campaign calling for President Obama to pardon him (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

BIOGRAPHY

How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft

By Edward Jay Epstein

Knopf

359 pages, $27.95

• Edward Snowden is an American patriot. He saw a wrong within his government and told the world about it – a courageous act of true patriotism.

• Edward Snowden is a traitor. He revealed secrets about his government’s espionage methods, secrets that endangered lives, embarrassed his country and crippled its intelligence network.

The author offers both propositions in Secrets, but doesn’t hide the one he chooses.

He delves deeply into Snowden’s life, follows him through various jobs and the circuitous route Snowden took to elude authorities so he could drop his bombshell.

But he also takes to task government officials for ignoring signals that Snowden was unfit for sensitive intelligence-gathering work and criticizes the private corporation that hired him for not caring about the lack of his qualifications.

Today Snowden lives in Russia, outside the reach of U.S. prosecutors who want to put him behind bars for treason. He fled there from Hong Kong, where he provided chosen journalists with the keys to unlock the secrets of the nation’s covert tactics in gaining information.

The revelations caused a stir that has lingered for nearly four years.

How could a low-level employe of a government contractor not only gain access to, but also steal top-secret methods and procedures?  How could the theft go unnoticed for days while the thief made his way to Hong Kong with the treasure trove?

Epstein provides an answer to the former but not the latter.

His subject’s employment history foretells the intelligence crisis he triggered.  Hired as a computer technician by the CIA, he was put under investigation for improperly attempting to access information not available to him. But, fearing dismissal and loss of his top-secret security clearance, he resigned, only to be hired by a private corporation contracted by the National Security Agency to do  intelligence work.

He was an attractive prospect because he still carried the desired clearance necessary to work for the contractor. But he was intent on working inside the NSA. So he cyberly pilfered the agency’s application exam, passed it with flying colors … and was turned down.

His next move was to another contractor that did higher level intelligence work for the NSA.

It’s these steps, coupled with what Epstein describes as Snowden’s disenchantment with the government, as expressed on social media under aliases, that laid the groundwork for the tumult that followed.

What apparently angered Snowden most was the NSA’s domestic intelligence-gathering, the collection of phone calls from and to U.S. citizens from overseas. Snowden the patriot.

Then why, Epstein argues, did Snowden also reveal secrets about how the NSA and other spy networks compiled data on other countries and other spy agencies? Snowden the traitor.

And it is in that vein that Epstein labels Snowden, not a whistleblower deserving of praise, but a renegade hell bent on revenge for perceived slights.

The revenge, he asserts, was devastating.  It not only showed friends and foes how the U.S. gathered information; maybe even more devastating, it showed from whom information was gathered.

“The quantity of stolen documents, 1.7 million, does not necessarily reveal the damage and can itself be misleading,” Epstein writes. “The quality of some of these documents is another matter,” he adds, then notes several of the documents were road maps to secret operations and of “immense value” to the nation’s enemies.

Epstein devotes sections of “Secrets” to two specific adversaries--Russia and China.  And he hints Russia might have been the major beneficiary, might even have been an accomplice.  After all, Epstein wonders, why did Russia so quickly and willingly give Snowden shelter from his pursuers? Or did Snowden pilfer more material than he exposed, material that might be more valuable to Russia than to other affected countries?

In today’s political and diplomatic atmosphere, a cyber-meddling atmosphere brewed years after Snowden’s disclosures, the questions seem even more pertinent, even if Epstein didn’t intend them to be when he wrote them.

“Conjectures about Snowden’s motives matter less than that he was helped, consciously or not, by others with interests that differed from those of the United States,” writes Epstein.

Epstein’s research sparkles in “Secrets.” To get a feel for Snowden’s journey from Hawaii, where he was working for the NSA contractor, to Hong Kong, where he met with reporters to share his mother lode of secrets, and then to Russia for asylum, Epstein took the same flights and stayed in the same hotels Snowden did.

He describes Snowden’s fear of detection, his use of encrypted emails to reporters to offer them exclusives and arrange meetings.  But he refutes the premise that Snowden felt morally obligated to reveal practices he considered reprehensible.  No, Epstein argues, Snowden was a publicity-seeking narcissist who put himself above the law by revealing lawful covert operations.

Someday, it might be up to a jury to decide if he the author was right.

Lee Coppola is an award-winning former print and TV jornalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Journalism School.  

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