Michael Wolff: What's Missing in Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' (and Why)

Snowden Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Snowden Still 1 - Publicity - H 2016

Edward Jay Epstein's book 'How America Lost its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft' makes the bold contention that Snowden gave Russia secrets in exchange for safe harbor.

The filmmaker Oliver Stone and the journalist Edward Jay Epstein have known each other for many years. Epstein in fact plays a director of the Federal Reserve in Stone’s 2010 sequel to Wall Street. They are both often thought of as conspiracist types. Epstein’s book Inquest in 1966 became one of the foundation documents of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory; Stone offered his version of assassination history in the 1991 film JFK. Both men have had an ongoing focus on American intelligence, with Stone seeing the CIA as the hidden actor in many domestic and international misdeeds, including, recently, the Russian takeover of the Ukraine (the subject of Stone’s documentary, Ukraine on Fire), and Epstein becoming a biographer of CIA counter-espionage chief James Jesus Angleton. Stone’s new film Snowden, a portrait of former NSA analyst Edward Snowden whose revelations about domestic spying have caused an international furor, was released Friday. Epstein’s book on Snowden will be published by Knopf in January.

But that’s where the similarities end. Stone’s Snowden echoes the dominant media narrative about a young man who single-handedly took on the menace that is the U.S. government’s intelligence operations. Epstein—who spent two years investigating Snowden’s NSA breach, retracing Snowden’s steps from Hawaii to Hong Kong and then to Moscow—finds Snowden in his book How America Lost its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft, to have committed the largest looting of intelligence in history and, beyond what he’s made public, to have put much of that information into the hands of the Russians.

Epstein’s journalistic approach, he argues, is not about establishing conspiracies, but the counter-narrative that deconstructs the conventional wisdom—that is, mostly, media wisdom. Indeed, since his early work debunking the Warren Commission, Epstein has watched the conspiracy-minded view increasingly become the conventional wisdom of both the right and the left, reaching, with Snowden, something of its apotheosis.

Snowden as a lone figure exposing a conspiracy of mass surveillance by the government, has, after his 2013 flight from the U.S., become the almost unchallenged narrative—and Stone’s story. “Either I’m wrong,” declares Snowden in Stone’s film, “Or something inside the government is wrong.”

Stone’s view of history, Epstein reflects, is not simply to see the U.S. government as persistent malefactor, but to see history through the eyes of a heroic, righteous and unquestioned, even saintly, protagonist. In JFK, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, surely one of the most discredited people in the annals of even the most conspiracy-minded, is nevertheless in Stone’s film the white knight and moral intelligence, the crusading prosecutor who solves the case. Epstein took Stone to task in a 1993 article in The Atlantic, pointing out that, “Whereas the original Garrison only attempted to coax, intimidate and hypnotize witnesses into providing him with incriminating evidence, the new Garrison, Oliver Stone, fabricated for his film the crucial evidence and witnesses that were missing in real life.” (Epstein says he and Stone remain on good terms because Stone always forgets what Epstein has written.)

Stone casts himself as at least partly a documentarian and historian, arguing “the facts” of his case across media outlets. But in reality, Epstein argues, Stone is exclusively a dramatist, creating sometimes compelling, but always fanciful, versions of history. Epstein points out, over a recent cup of tea on his Upper East Side terrace — where, for many years, he has hosted gatherings of writers, filmmakers and entertainment figures, often attended by Stone — that while the Snowden story is presented as beyond dispute, informed opinion could not be more divided. In fact, the film offers a narrative that Epstein, along with most people in the U.S. intelligence community, believe is almost as preposterous as the one about Garrison.

“Seldom have views been so much at odds,” says Epstein. “There’s a singular view on the part of people who actually know something about how the NSA works and the nature of the Snowden breach that sees Snowden having committed a sui generis theft of state secrets.” Indeed, last week a letter unanimously signed by all of the Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee urged the President not to pardon Edward Snowden. “And then there is the opposite view, the media’s view, of Snowden’s courage and righteousness.”

Epstein’s book — I’ve recently read an advance copy —is as powerful and convincing in its investigative details as Stone’s movie tries to be in its dramatizing. Instead of Snowden accidentally trapped in Russia, Epstein shows Snowden to have traded his vast cache of secrets—not just his revelations about NSA domestic spying, but 1.7 million other documents he purloined, many involving the U.S. military and worldwide intelligence operations — for safe passage into Russia and a secure redoubt there. In Epstein’s telling, it is impossible to distinguish Snowden’s actions, however idealistic they may have sometimes been, from those of a long list of defectors who have traded state secrets to adversary nations.

What is different in the Snowden case is the media’s vested interest, and the creation of what Epstein calls the false narrative that has defended and justified Snowden, and that the Stone film now joins. This began with Britain’s Guardian newspaper — which had, shortly before obtaining the Snowden documents, opened an ambitious U.S. operation which it needed to jumpstart (last week, it cut a third of its 150-person staff) — not just publishing the Snowden secrets, but becoming his advocate; and includes the launch of the Intercept, the publication funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, a founder of Ebay, on the basis of its possession of some of the Snowden documents. There is also the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, Snowden’s hagiographic retelling of his own story, by Laura Poitras, the journalist-advocate who, with reporter and now Intercept founder/editor Glenn Greenwald, and the Guardian, first received the Snowden documents. Then, via the Guardian, the Poitras documentary and through social media, Snowden himself has become a go-to expert on issues of intelligence and privacy. And now there’s the Stone film, which celebrates not just Snowden, but the media that promoted him.

“The Snowden story, an undeniably good one, features an idealistic and photogenic young man, standing up to the government for doing insidious things — pay no attention to the fact that mostly what it did is what it’s supposed to do — and who is now in lonely exile — pay no attention to the elaborate, Putin-approved machine that supports, handles and profits off of him in Russia,” says Epstein.

“It is all,” he says, “the product of a peculiar narrative loop,” with the only source of the Snowden story being Snowden himself. Stone, for his film, purchased a Guardian-sponsored book, based almost exclusively on interviews with Snowden and designed to promote the paper’s relationship with its heroic newsmaker — for which the Guardian received from Stone $700,000, making it a direct profit participant in Snowden-mania. Stone also purchased for $1 million an unpublished novel about the affair written by Stone’s Russian handler, likely the access fee to Snowden himself (the book was not used in the writing of the film, Stone has said). The Stone movie also tracks and dramatizes or re-dramatizes the Poitras film — which is largely an extended interview with Snowden. Last week, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, much of whose reputation rests on the Pulitzer Prize the paper won for publishing Snowden’s revelations — and who appears as himself in Stone’s film — interviewed Snowden in the Financial Times and asked him how accurate the movie is. “In other words,” says Epstein, “Snowden is the verifier of his own story.”

Edward Snowden represents, says Epstein, not just an extraordinary journalistic coup for the reporters and news organizations who received his leaks, and an historic intelligence coup for Russian and Putin, but an almost complete PR coup in which the subject of a story has achieved the absolute fealty of the media covering him.