Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft
by Edward Jay Epstein
To Edward Jay Epstein, Edward Snowden is no hero, said Nicholas Lemann in The New York Times. In his detailed new examination of the case against the former NSA contractor who exposed a U.S. spying operation against American citizens, Epstein proposes that Snowden might all along have been working under the control of Russia, China, or both. Epstein, who began his long career by questioning the standard account of President Kennedy’s assassination, clearly wants readers to conclude that Snowden at one point or another sold out to Russia, delivering valuable secrets in exchange for the asylum he currently enjoys there. Unfortunately, Epstein “proves none of this.” He argues that exploring the possible explanations for Snowden’s actions is necessary, but the result is less a book of responsible journal- ism than “an impressively fluffy, goldenbrown wobbly soufflé of speculation.”
Though Epstein’s most provocative hypotheticals remain hypotheticals, he is “far more convincing in casting doubt on the accepted picture of Snowden as a selfless whistleblower,” said Stephen Budiansky in The Wall Street Journal. In Epstein’s telling, Snowden lost his job at the CIA in 2009 because he was caught altering his performance evaluation, then tried unsuccessfully to land an NSA post by stealing the answers to an employee test. More damning are online comments he made over several years under an alias, because the posts “bristle with self-absorption and arrogance.” In context, his effort to unveil the NSA’s digital spying program looks like an act of personal revenge rather than a public service.
Unfortunately, even Epstein’s reporting of the facts can’t be trusted, said Charlie Savage in The New York Review of Books. He wants readers to believe that Snowden, after meeting in Hong Kong with the two journalists to whom he entrusted the most famous NSA files, carried a larger cache of unrelated secrets to Moscow. But the author’s evidence for this is far flimsier than the counter-evidence he ignores: testimony from a Hong Kong lawyer who says he witnessed Snowden destroying his hard drives before departing the city. Such examples of reporting bias abound, and they undercut any good Epstein’s book otherwise might have achieved. “When a nonfiction writer reaches the limits of discoverable fact, he is supposed to stop, not fill in whatever gaps exist with his imagination.”