Eric Holder Admits Edward Snowden’s Leaks Were a ‘Public Service’

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It's always nice to be appreciated.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2015 Getty Images

Former Attorney General Eric Holder is having a change of heart when it comes to Edward Snowden. Back in 2013, Holder told USA Today that Snowden’s intelligence leaks led to a “healthy conversation” about the nation’s intelligence-gathering activities, but held that there was absolutely “no basis” for letting him off the hook. But on David Axelrod’s podcast, The Axe Files, Monday morning, Holder showed even more leniency toward Snowden, saying he “performed a public service.”

Holder told Axelrod that even he had second-guessed the efficacy of the government’s intelligence-gathering programs. “We had a capacity to do all sorts of things under these listening programs,” he said. “But after a while I remember sending memos to the president asking, ‘Do we really need to do this, given the way in which we are focusing on people’s lives and given the return that we were getting, which was not, I think, in any way substantial?’ And so I think that we can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and the changes that we made.” 

However, Holder said, just because Snowden sparked a necessary conversation doesn’t mean what he did was right. “I would say that doing what he did — and the way he did it — was inappropriate and illegal,” he told Axelrod, adding that it put agents at risk as well as America’s relationship with other countries. 

I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done” he said. “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.”

Earlier this year, Snowden said he’d be willing to return to the U.S. if officials would grant him a fair trial. But he also told the audience at a University of Chicago event that the whole “usefulness of having had a national debate” argument won’t count for much with a judge. “As I think you’re quite familiar, the Espionage Act does not permit a public interest defense,” he said.

But Snowden did seem to appreciate Holder’s comments — this morning he tweeted a clip from the podcast in which Holder calls his actions a public service.