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The World of Edward Snowden

In response to:

The Facts About Edward Snowden from the March 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Thank you for printing my letter and Charlie Savage’s response [“The Facts About Edward Snowden,” Letters, NYR, March 9]. In discussing my footnote, he asserts that the June 10, 2013, article by Te-Ping Chen makes no mention as to when Snowden checked in to the Mira. Actually, her article does state that Snowden checked in to the Mira on June 1, as I confirmed (www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324904004578537062414488652).

Savage is correct that I was imprecise in pluralizing “reporters” in my footnote. Ms. Chen had a coreporter credited, but as Ms. Chen told me, she was the one who spoke to the hotel reservation clerk.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden; drawing by James Ferguson

As for the issue he takes with me on the PRISM program, I use the word “accidental,” whereas he uses the word “incidental.” For the NSA, “incidental” is the deliberate, not accidental, surveillance of people in contact with a target, as in the example I give in my letter.

Edward Jay Epstein
New York City

Charlie Savage replies:

Edward Jay Epstein’s second letter further demonstrates why readers should approach with caution the information he puts forward. First, contrary to his letter’s implication, his endnote did not cite the June 10, 2013, Wall Street Journal article, “Snowden’s Whereabouts Remain Unclear,” to which he now points. Rather, the endnote cited the article “Snowden’s Options for Refuge Narrow,” which the Journal published online on June 30, and which, as I discussed in my reply to his first letter, indeed says nothing about when Snowden checked in to the Mira Hotel. Faced with the recognition that he cited the wrong article, Epstein in this letter disingenuously tries to paper over his mistake by mischaracterizing which article I was discussing rather than by forthrightly explaining what happened.

Second, I acknowledge that the ninth paragraph of this June 10 article, of which I was previously unaware, states (in passing and without clear sourcing) that Snowden checked in to the Mira on June 1, in apparent contrast to Snowden’s statements that he had been staying at the hotel since his arrival in Hong Kong eleven days earlier. I remain unaware of any other place in the public record except Epstein’s work where this June 1 claim independently appears, ranging from numerous other news articles about Snowden’s time in Hong Kong to a September 2016 report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which—seeking to counter the premiere of Oliver Stone’s movie—scoured the government’s investigative file for material to portray Snowden as a liar.

Perhaps someday the Mira’s records will emerge into public view and we will have more solid information to evaluate this question. Either way, my central point remains unchanged: Epstein treated the check-in claim as a factual anchor for his insinuations about what Snowden might have been doing earlier, but at the time he wrote his book (and still today) the evidence for this claim was insufficient to establish it as a proven fact. This is part of a recurring pattern with his methodology.

Finally, I note that Epstein’s second letter drops his attempt to defend his mistake in telling readers that every ninety days the NSA filters the trove of e-mails it gathers via the PRISM system to purge Americans’ messages that it accidentally collected without a warrant. Still, he insists that by “accidental” he was not referring to the type of unplanned collection of Americans’ e-mails that the NSA calls “incidental” (which happens when Americans communicate with foreigners the agency has targeted for surveillance), and which the government keeps and treats as fair game for use in unrelated investigations. Instead, he says that sentence was about a different type of unplanned collection that the government is generally supposed to delete (even if no ninety-day filtering process exists).

But “accidental” is not the agency’s term of art for the latter type of unplanned collection, which happens when there is a mistake or equipment failure; rather that type is called “inadvertent.” Moreover, I point back to the fact that Epstein’s inaccurate claim about a filtering and purging process immediately followed a sentence about the “incidental” collection of Americans’ messages and, in the context of the paragraph, its function was to undermine the suggestion that PRISM’s incidental collection of data about Americans meant that Snowden’s exposure of the system qualified as whistleblowing.

Since Epstein’s book is littered with inaccuracies about basic surveillance facts, the simplest explanation is that he just got confused here, too. It is surprising that he appears to prefer people to believe that he instead knowingly shifted from discussing the type of unplanned collection that the government keeps to the type it deletes, since that would imply that he deliberately misled his readers using a bait-and-switch.