Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has received faint praise from an unlikely source: former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Snowden became a hugely divisive figure after he leaked a trove of documents exposing the extent of NSA surveillance techniques in 2013. While numerous officials have deemed him a whistleblower, others contend he is simply a criminal.
During an interview for the political podcast “The Axe Files” with David Axelrod, the chief strategist of President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Holder revealed he had a nuanced view of Snowden as a man worthy of both praise and condemnation, CNN reports.
“We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by changes that we made,” Holder said.
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U.S. officials have previously called for Snowden’s arrest while also admitting the NSA’s surveillance apparatus had overstepped its bounds and have since trimmed that agency’s capabilities.
Holder added that regardless of Snowden’s intentions and the benefits the public got from the leaks, “what he did -- and the way he did it -- was inappropriate and illegal.
“He harmed American interests,” Holder continued. “I know there are ways in which certain of our agents were put at risk, relationships with other countries were harmed, our ability to keep the American people safe was compromised.”
Having been the head of the Department of Justice when Snowden leaked the data trove, Holder now states that the former contractor should both answer for his actions and receive a fair shake in U.S. courts.
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“He’s broken the law in my view,” Holder said. “He needs to get lawyers, come on back ... I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done. But, I think in deciding what an appropriate sentence should be, I think a judge could take into account the usefulness of having had that national debate.”
Currently residing in Russia, Snowden has repeatedly asserted that he would return to the U.S. if he was confident that he could receive a fair trial. He has called for the reforming of whistleblower protections.
“We need iron-clad, enforceable protections for whistleblowers, and we need a public record of success stories,” Snowden told The Guardian. “Protect the people who go to members of Congress with oversight roles, and if their efforts lead to a positive change in policy ... There are no incentives for people to stand up against an agency on the wrong side of the law today, and that’s got to change.”
Holder retired from the DOJ in April 2015. The former attorney general has often been candid since leaving his post. In February, he indicated that he was supportive of removing marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug.
“You know, we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate,” Holder told PBS.