Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines at the end of May when he appeared to at least somewhat revise his evaluation of Edward Snowden by saying the former NSA contractor performed a "public service" in triggering a debate over proper surveillance techniques in the U.S.
Of course, Holder added a caveat to all of this: Snowden needs to return to the U.S. and face trial for his alleged crimes, Politico reports.
While White House press secretary Josh Earnest has said that Holder has "articulated the view of the administration" in calling for Snowden to be prosecuted in the U.S. for "serious crimes," President Barack Obama does not believe Snowden performed a "public service" by leaking classified national security documents.
The president is correct. While many see Snowden as a heroic figure in an era of increasing government power or credit him with beginning a new national debate on surveillance, the fact is he took it on himself to release a large trove of classified information in direct violation of the law and in violation of his responsibility as a contractor for the government.
By acting on his principles, Snowden has set a precedent for members of the military intelligence agency employees, contractors and bureaucrats to start making all manner of decisions according to their own sense of what is best for the country, rather than what has been set as policy by elected representatives, as David Focil of And Magazine notes.
Focil also thoughtfully notes that Snowden should not have continued to work in an organization tasked with carrying out intelligence gathering on behalf of the military. He would have had more luck in the U.S. had he resigned from his post and become a political activist. He may have received a warm reception from notably libertarian-minded members of Congress who have publicly opposed over-surveillance in the past, such as Justin Amash, Rand Paul, Ron Wyden and Thomas Massie.
The NSA undoubtedly violated the privacy of U.S. citizens through its PRISM program and has arguably made Americans feel less secure in private. But there is a difference between the existence of surveillance and how it is applied by the government that uses it.
The revelations about PRISM did not include any knowledge about innocent Americans who have been directly harmed or threatened by the NSA, nor have there been any stories -- which would have been forthcoming in the revelations -- about the NSA or other government agencies using surveillance to punish Americans for their political inclinations. If such incidents had occurred and were revealed, the uproar over PRISM would have been much greater than it actually was.
Snowden is not likely to return to the U.S. any time soon. In a recent videoconference from Russia with the University of Chicago, Snowden said the following:
"I've already said from the very first moment that if the government was willing to provide a fair trial, if I had access to public interest defenses and other things like that, I would want to come home and make my case to the jury.
"But, as I think you're quite familiar, the Espionage Act does not permit a public interest defense. You're not allowed to speak the word 'whistleblower' at trial."