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

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

by Edward Jay Epstein


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


A powerful exposé that calls into question Edward Snowden's hero status and uncovers how vulenerable our national security systems have become.

Edward Snowden. Hero, traitor, whistleblower, or spy? In the wake of his 2013 NSA leak, public opinion has been divided over the former IT analyst. In How America Lost Its Secrets, Edward Jay Epstein draws on his extensive journalistic experience and investigative acumen to investigate the Snowden scandal--why, and how, it happened, and what the implications will be. This is a crucial book for anyone hoping to understand national security in the digital age, and what Snowden's revelations mean for America (and Putin's Russia).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451494566
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/17/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN is an investigative journalist and a former political science professor at UCLA. He is the author of many books, including Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, The Hollywood Economist 2.0: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, and Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer, and has written for publications including The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

Read an Excerpt



It’s like the boiling frog. You get exposed to a little bit of evil, a little bit of rule-breaking, a little bit of dishonesty . . . ​you can come to justify it.

—EDWARD SNOWDEN, Moscow, 2014

EDWARD JOSEPH SNOWDEN was born on June 21, 1983, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His parents were Lon Snowden and Elizabeth “Wendy” Barrett. According to their marriage records, they wed when they were both eighteen in 1979. The following year they had a daughter, Jessica.

Lon Snowden, like his father before him, served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was stationed at its main aviation base, where his father-in-law, Edward Joseph Barrett, was an officer and rising star of the Coast Guard. While Edward Snowden was still a child, his maternal grandfather would become not only an admiral but also head of the Coast Guard’s entire aviation service.

When Lon was transferred to a Coast Guard base near Baltimore in 1992, he bought a two-story house in Crofton, Maryland, a residential community very close to the NSA’s headquarters building at Fort Meade. Edward, who was nine, and Jessica, who was twelve, were enrolled in local public schools in Crofton.

Jessica was a top student. After she obtained her degree at the University of Maryland, she went on to law school, graduating with honors. Unlike his sister, Edward Snowden experienced a string of failures in his education. In 1998, after only one year of classes, he dropped out of Arundel High School; according to school records, he stopped attending classes at the age of fifteen. He later attributed his absence from school to a medical problem, mononucleosis, but according to Robert Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County public schools, there is no record of any illness. Brad Gunson, who knew Snowden before he dropped out of high school, recalled in an interview with The Washington Post only that he had a high-pitched voice, liked magic cards, and played fantasy video games.

Instead of completing a formal education, Snowden went his own way. Still in his teens, he became the product of a broken home. His parents were entangled in messy divorce proceedings until he was seventeen. By this time, Jessica had her own apartment. When his parents separated, Snowden’s mother bought a two-bedroom condominium in Ellicott City, Maryland. She moved Edward, along with his two cats, into the condominium, while she remained in the family house awaiting its sale. According to a condominium neighbor, Joyce Kinsey, Snowden stayed home alone almost all the time. From what she could observe, he spent long hours in front of a computer screen.

At the age of eighteen, while other teens his age went to college, Snowden was still living by himself, now devoting a large part of his time to playing fantasy games on the Internet. Posting under the alias TheTrueHooHa on a website called Ars Technica, he showed himself to be a passionate gamer. He was especially drawn to anime, a graphically violent style of Japanese animation. These anime games had by 2002 achieved a fanatic following in both Japan and the United States. He claimed special skills at Tekken, a martial arts fighting game. He even went to anime conventions in the Washington, D.C., area. When he became a webmaster for Ryuhana Press, a website running these anime-based games, he described himself somewhat fancifully as a thirty-seven-year-old father of two children. The only truth in his description was that he was born on “the longest day of the year” (June 21).

He wrote Internet posts under his TrueHooHa alias about how he used weight lifting and intensive training to precision shape his body. He bragged to his online followers that he had reduced his “body fat percentage to between 9.5% and 10.5%” (which was less than half of the average for his age). He wrote that he wore “cool” purple sunglasses, practiced martial arts, and was a fan of Japanese cuisine. He described himself at one point, as if advertising his virtues, as having a “head of vibrant, shimmering blond hair (with volume).”

He appeared somewhat restless with his solitary life in his almost daily postings. He expressed a longing to go to Japan. “I’ve always dreamed of being able to ‘make it’ in Japan. I’ve taken Japanese for a year and a half,” he wrote in 2002. Despite his claim of learning Japanese, there is no record of his taking any courses in Japanese. But it was perhaps part of his yearning. In pursuit of an employment opportunity in Japan, he posted, “I’d love a cushy gov job over there.” Eventually, he gave up on the idea of relocating himself to Japan because, as he explained in a post, he would have to put his cats in quarantine for six months.

Snowden’s father meanwhile moved to Pennsylvania with his new wife-to-be. This left Snowden with only one male family member in the area, his maternal grandfather, Admiral Barrett, who was now in the top echelon of U.S. intelligence working at the Pentagon. Barrett was there when a plane piloted by terrorists crashed into it on 9/11. He emerged unscathed.

Snowden sought to join the Special Forces through the 18X program, a U.S. Army Reserve program created in 2003 that allowed individuals who had not served in the military or completed their education to train to be a Special Forces recruit. He listed his religion on the application as Buddhist because, as he explained in a sardonic post on Ars Technica, “agnostic is strangely absent” from the form.

He enlisted in the army reserves on May 7, 2004, according to U.S. Army records. He reported for a ten-week basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, which was standard for all enlistees in the infantry. In August, he began a three-week course in parachute jumping but did not complete that training. As Snowden put it in his Internet postings, he “washed out.” He was discharged on September 29, 2004, ending his nineteen-week military career. Snowden would later claim on the Internet that he returned to civilian life because he had broken both legs. An army spokesman could not confirm that Snowden injured his legs or that he was in fact dropped from the program for medical reasons.

Under his TrueHooHa alias, Snowden wrote that “they [the army] held on to me until the doctors cleared me to be discharged, and then after being cleared they held onto me for another month just for shits and giggles.” He attributed this treatment in the army, as he would later attribute his problems in the CIA and the NSA, to the inferior intelligence of his superiors. He wrote in his post, “Psych problems = dishonorable discharge depending on how much they hate you. Lots of alleged homos were in the hold unit, too, but they only got a general discharge at best.”

If he had broken his legs, it was not evident to Joyce Kinsey, his next-door neighbor, who told me that she never saw Snowden on crutches when he returned to his mother’s condominium in September 2004. Army records show that he did not receive a medical discharge. He received an “administrative discharge.” Unlike a medical discharge, which is given because a soldier has sustained injuries that prevent him from performing his duties, an administrative discharge is a “morally neutral” form of separation given to a soldier when he or she is deemed for nonmedical reasons inappropriate for military service. Snowden preferred to cite a medical explanation for his severance, just as he had claimed a medical reason for dropping out of high school (and would later claim he needed medical treatment for epilepsy at the NSA).

When he returned home from Fort Benning, Georgia, he was twenty-one. He remained unemployed for several months before taking a job as a security guard at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, where he was given his first security clearance. Snowden had to take a polygraph exam to get the job. According to his Ars Technica postings, he worked the night shift from six in the evening to six in the morning. He had higher ambitions than being a campus security guard.

He wanted to become a male model. He did not seem overly concerned about his privacy, posting pictures of himself on the Internet “mooning” for the camera. He also posted provocative modeling pictures of himself on the Ars Technica website. He commented on his own beefcake-style pictures, “So sexxxy it hurts” and “I like my girlish figure that attracts girls.” He approached a model agency called Model Mayhem, which recommended a photographer. He had some concern about that photographer because he, as Snowden wrote in a post, “shoots mostly guys.” Snowden said he was “a little worried he might, you know, try to pull my pants off and choke me to death with them, but he turned out to be legit and is a pretty damn good model photographer.” He posted the photographs on the Internet. The lack of any paid job offers dashed Snowden’s hopes for a modeling career.

Around this time, he began dating Lindsay Mills, an extremely attractive nineteen-year-old art student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Jonathan Mills, Lindsay’s father, was an applications developer at the Oracle Corporation. According to him, Snowden met his daughter on an Internet dating site. Snowden and Mills had much in common. They both had divorced parents who gave them a great deal of latitude in conducting their personal lives. Both of them were keenly interested in perfecting their bodies through exercise and diet regimes. Mills’s only paid employment over the next eight years would be as a fitness and yoga instructor in Maryland. When they first met, they both had ambitions to be models, and neither of them had inhibitions about posing provocatively for photographers. They both also had a desire to travel to exotic places, including cities in Asia. Mills had spent four month in Guilin, China, before meeting Snowden.

As bleak as his prospects as a high-school dropout might have seemed, Snowden had an unexpected stroke of good fortune in the spring of 2006. The CIA offered him a $66,000-a-year job as a CIA communications officer. “I don’t have a degree of ANY type. In fact, I don’t even have a high school diploma,” Snowden boasted in May 2006 on the website Ars Technica under his alias. He added, with only a slight exaggeration, “I make 70K.”

How did Snowden get the job? The CIA’s minimum requirements in 2006 for a job in its clandestine division included a bachelor’s or master’s degree and a strong academic record, with a preferred GPA of 3.0 or better.

The CIA needed technical workers in 2006. But even if Snowden applied only in this capacity, which entailed a five-year employment agreement, the minimum requirement for an intelligence technology job was an associate’s degree awarded by a two-year community college in electronics and communications, engineering technology, computer network systems, or electronics engineering technology. Candidates had to have had a final GPA of at least 3.0 on a 4.0 scale from a fully accredited technical school or university. Snowden, as we’ve seen, did not meet these standards. If a candidate lacks these qualifications, the CIA can make an exception only if he or she has at least two years’ civilian or military work experience in the telecommunications and/or automated information systems field that is comparable to one of the requisite degree fields. Snowden in no way qualified in this way either.

Under extraordinary circumstances, even the minimum requirements might be waived if the applicant had a distinguished military career and an honorable discharge. Snowden, however, did not complete his military training at Fort Benning and received only an administrative discharge.

The CIA, to be sure, had needed computer-savvy recruits to service its expanding array of computer systems since 1990. By 2006, however, there was no shortage of fully qualified applicants for IT jobs who met the CIA’s minimum standards. Most of them had university course records, work experience at IT companies, computer science training certificates from technical schools, and other such credentials. The CIA, like the NSA, also obtained technicians with special skills for IT jobs from outside contractors. So it had no need for employing a twenty-two-year-old dropout who did not meet its requisites. According to Tyler Drumheller, a former CIA station chief in Europe, the only plausible way that Snowden, with no qualifications, was allowed to jump the queue was that “he had some pull.”

In 2006, Snowden’s grandfather, who had attained the rank of rear admiral, was certainly well connected in the intelligence world. After twenty years’ service in the Coast Guard, Barrett had joined an interagency task force in 1998, which included top executives from the CIA, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. It had been set up to monitor any gaps in the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and Barrett, as one of its leaders, was in constant liaison with the CIA. By 2004, he had joined the FBI as the section head of its aviation and special operations. In this capacity, he supervised the joint CIA-FBI interrogation of the prisoners in the Guantánamo base in Cuba, which involved him in the rendition program for terrorists.

Barrett could certainly have played a role in furthering his only grandson’s employment. The CIA, however, has not disclosed any information about who, if anyone, recommended Snowden. All that is known is that in 2006 the CIA waived its minimum requirements for him.

Later Snowden pointed out from Moscow that in 2006 the federal government employed his entire family. His father was serving in the Coast Guard; his mother was an administrative clerk for the federal court in Maryland; his sister was a research director at the Federal Judicial Center; and Admiral Barrett was still a top executive at the FBI. In a sense, Snowden had entered the family business.

Table of Contents

Prologue Snowden's Trail: Hong Kong, 2014 3

Part 1 Snowden's Arc

Chapter 1 Tinker 15

Chapter 2 Secret Agent 22

Chapter 3 Contractor 28

Chapter 4 Thief 38

Chapter 5 Crossing the Rubicon 44

Chapter 6 Hacktivist 49

Chapter 7 String Puller 59

Chapter 8 Raider of the Inner Sanctum 74

Chapter 9 Escape Artist 81

Chapter 10 Whistle-blower 89

Chapter 11 Enter Assange 99

Chapter 12 Fugitive 105

Part 2 The Intelligence Crisis

Chapter 13 The Great Divide 113

Chapter 14 The Crime Scene Investigation 134

Chapter 15 Did Snowden Act Alone? 147

Chapter 16 The Question of When 157

Chapter 17 The Keys to the Kingdom Are Missing 169

Chapter 18 The Unheeded Warning 187

Part 3 The Game of Nations

Chapter 19 The Rise of the NSA 197

Chapter 20 The NSA's Back Door 209

Chapter 21 The Russians Are Coming 220

Chapter 22 The Chinese Puzzle 234

Chapter 23 A Single Point of Failure 241

Part 4 Moscow Calling

Chapter 24 Off to Moscow 251

Chapter 25 Through the Looking Glass 258

Chapter 26 The Handler 265

Part 5 Conclusions: Walking the Cat Back

Chapter 27 Snowden's Choices 275

Chapter 28 The Espionage Source 285

Chapter 29 The "War on Terror" After Snowden 291

Epilogue The Snowden Effect 299

Author's Note 305

Acknowledgments 311

Notes 313

Selected Bibliography 335

Index 339

Customer Reviews