The Facts About Edward Snowden

In response to:

Was Snowden a Russian Agent? from the February 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book [“Was Snowden a Russian Agent?,” NYR, February 9], Charlie Savage challenges my assertion that Edward Snowden did not check in to the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong until June 1, 2013 (eleven days after his arrival), by saying, “I am aware of no independent verification of this allegation.” In fact, independent verification by Asian Wall Street Journal reporters who visited the hotel on June 10, 2013, is in my footnote (which Savage apparently neglected to consult).

Savage goes on to seriously distort my depiction of government policy, writing: “Epstein reassures his readers three times that every few months, the NSA sifts through all the e-mails it has gathered via PRISM in order to filter out and purge ‘whatever information was accidentally picked up about Americans,’” adding disparagingly, “That is a fake fact.” What I actually wrote was: “Whatever information was accidently picked up about Americans was supposed to be filtered out, and hundreds of compliance officers were to recheck the data every ninety days to assure that directive was being carried out. Even so, it was likely some data was not expunged in this process.” The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board reports that when data is accidently acquired, the “rules generally require the communications to be destroyed.” By omitting the words I have italicized for the purposes of this letter, Savage makes it appear that I was reassuring readers that the PRISM program was foolproof, even though I said the opposite. Savage created his own “fake fact” through this artful truncating of my words.

To be sure, information about US citizens that is collected deliberately, rather than accidentally, includes data both from individuals that have been targeted through court-approved procedures and from others they contact (which is termed “incidental”). This data can be shared with the CIA and FBI. For example, I describe in my book a 2009 incident in which the NSA intercepts communications between an al-Qaeda bomb-maker in Pakistan and an Afghan-American in Colorado concerning their preparations to blow up New York City’s Grand Central and Times Square subway stations, and shares these messages with the FBI. In this case, a bloodbath was averted because, until Snowden revealed it, PRISM had been kept secret.

Finally, Savage challenged an answer I cite of Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Russian lawyer, after Snowden arrived in Russia. He characterized as “ambiguous” Kucherena’s answer “certainly” to the question whether Snowden still had material that had not been disclosed in public. The Russian-language BBC service was not ambiguous in its headline (in Russia), “KUCHERENA: SNOWDEN HAS SECRET DOCUMENTS,” and Kucherena was not ambiguous in addressing the question when I later interviewed him in Moscow. Of course, if Savage were not able to find ambiguity in the word “certainly,” he might have to accept that the man who gave him NSA secrets for his reporting may also have brought secrets to Russia.

Edward Jay Epstein
New York City

Charlie Savage replies:

In my review of How America Lost Its Secrets, I concluded that wherever one falls in the spectrum of views about Edward Snowden’s actions, Edward Jay Epstein’s book about him is not credible because it indulges in speculation, treats questionable claims as established facts, and contains numerous inaccuracies about surveillance. His response does not attempt to rebut the first problem, and it actually serves to reinforce the latter two failings.

I am skeptical about the book treating as fact the claim that Snowden checked into the Mira Hotel eleven days after he arrived in Hong Kong because, as far as I am aware, the only other place in the public record where this claim exists is a June 2014 column by Epstein himself, which cited an unnamed hotel security guard. In his response, Epstein maintains that independent verification was provided by Wall Street Journal “reporters,” pointing to an endnote in his book. I had considered highlighting that very endnote as an example of why I came to distrust Epstein’s methodology.

First, it states that Epstein interviewed six Mira staffers during his 2014 visit to Hong Kong, which creates an impression, without quite saying so, that all six echoed that claim—but if that were true, surely he would have trumpeted all six in the original column. The endnote goes on to name “a journalist” with the Journal who, Epstein says, heard similar things from the hotel staff, and it cites an article about Snowden that she cowrote with another reporter. Note, first, that the endnote’s single verifying reporter has grown into plural verifying “reporters” in his response. Moreover, I looked up the cited article on the Journal’s website and it says nothing about when Snowden checked into the hotel. Straining for a charitable explanation, I suppose the reporter might have told Epstein privately that she heard something similar while researching the article—but even if so, the important claim’s absence from the article suggests that it lacked sufficient evidence to meet newsroom standards for publication, the opposite of verification that it is a fact. Finally, Epstein’s citation to an article as implied support for a claim it does not even discuss was highly misleading.

I also criticized Epstein for falsely reassuring his readers that every ninety days, the NSA filters the e-mails it has collected while targeting foreigners via the PRISM system and purges any Americans’ messages it accidentally gathered without a warrant. In his response, Epstein says I portrayed him as saying that this filtering process is foolproof, but my complaint was that no such process exists. Instead, officials at several agencies are permitted to query the raw PRISM trove using Americans’ names and to use their incidentally collected messages—meaning that the NSA collected the Americans’ private information without setting out to do so because those Americans sent e-mails to foreign targets of the agency’s surveillance; Epstein continues to demonstrate no understanding of these warrantless “backdoor searches” for unrelated investigations, even though they are the subject of an important public policy debate.

Epstein’s response further obfuscates his error by pointing to a line in a report that says the NSA generally destroys Americans’ e-mails that it inadvertently collected due to an equipment malfunction. That is true, but the agency does not filter for such messages every ninety days. And, more importantly, that was not the sort of accidental collection he was talking about. His false line about a regular filtering process instead came after a sentence describing how the PRISM system, while targeting foreigners, “incidentally also picked up data about Americans,” and in the context of the broader paragraph, it signaled that readers should dismiss any belief that this incidental collection meant that Snowden’s exposure of PRISM “qualified as whistle-blowing.”

As for Epstein’s defense of his interpretation of the brief exchange between Snowden’s Russian lawyer and an interviewer, I point back to Epstein’s omission of its murky context and to his unjournalistic failure to follow up and seek explicit confirmation of what he presumed the lawyer meant. But it is fitting that in his parting shot, Epstein once again demonstrates his methodology of creating a scornful insinuation through a dubious rendition of the facts: while I have written much about surveillance drawing on information that came to light directly or indirectly because of Snowden’s leaks, I am not one of the reporters to whom he gave NSA secrets.