Getting the attention of investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein (The JFK Assassination Diary, 2013, etc.) is no small feat. Having profiled everyone from Lee Harvey Oswald to CIA chief James Jesus Angleton, Epstein has had a front row seat to the spy game for more than 40 years. So in May, 2013, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed mass surveillance programs from a hotel room in Hong Kong before fleeing to Moscow, Epstein took a gamble. A year later he found himself at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong and would later find himself in Moscow to meet with Snowden’s Russian handlers in order to write How America Lost Its Secrets, which Kirkus’ reviewer calls “a wild and harrowing detective story” in a starred review.
Once Epstein began re-tracing Snowden’s steps, he started discovering other mysteries—days in Hong Kong when Snowden was unaccounted for, as well as contradictions in his public statements. The journalist found it all perplexing.
“I think the fact that he went public was evidence that he was not a Russian spy at the time that he went public,” Epstein explains from his home in New York City. “It’s not unusual for a defector to give a press conference in Moscow. But it’s highly unusual for someone to go public in the way that Snowden did before he got to Moscow, where he had sanctuary and protection.”
Epstein also discovered that many of the public’s misconceptions about Snowden are fostered by the man himself.
“I think there are major misconceptions,” says Epstein. “First, this assertion that he gave the journalists in Hong Kong all of his documents is false. He gave a small fraction of them. A second misconception is that he destroyed everything he had before he went to Moscow. He brought his documents to Moscow. The last misconception is that Edward Snowden is a dedicated whistle-blower. He’s a man who stole a lot of information, some of which qualifies as whistle-blowing, and some of which does not.”
The course of his investigation also brought Epstein into the orbit of spies, fixers, lawyers and other allies. The journalist sat down in Moscow with Anatoly Kucherena, the high-profile Russian attorney known to be Snowden’s gatekeeper in Moscow. Epstein’s request for a meeting with Snowden was politely declined.
“I don’t think he saw me as someone useful to promulgating his narrative,” says Epstein. “I would have asked specific questions. I would have asked him what flight he took from Hawaii to Honolulu, and when he bought his ticket. I would ask where he stayed during his first 10 days in Hong Kong. My main question to him would be who his friends were at the NSA. I’m interested in whether he acted alone, even if the other party was unwitting.”
Ultimately, Epstein found that he had to correlate Snowden’s actions against his public statements.
“I can’t speak to Snowden’s intention without looking at what he does, not what he says,” says Epstein. “He boards a plane to Moscow after speaking to Russian diplomats. We know Vladmir Putin personally authorized his flight to Russia. When he lands, Russian special operations launched an action to take him off the plane and then he’s not heard from again for 22 days. I think his intentions correspond to what he did. It can’t be accidental.”
In the end, despite his best efforts to unearth Snowden’s motives and character, Epstein was left with little more than a cipher.
“Here’s the thing,” says Epstein. “I did a book on Lee Harvey Oswald called Legend. Oswald was a despicable character who killed a beloved President. I managed to find more than 150 people who knew Oswald and would talk to me. With Edward Snowden, I couldn’t find a single person who really knew him. Snowden, unlike Oswald, isn’t a despicable character. So why wouldn’t someone emerge to defend him? The only answer I could come up with is that Snowden didn’t associate with a lot of people. He kept to himself almost pathologically. Maybe it’s a culture where he lives in cyberspace and he doesn’t live in the terrestrial world.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Monterey, California.