Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says Edward Snowden broke the law by leaking classified documents that revealed the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program. But in doing so, Holder believes the NSA contractor turned whistleblower performed a “public service,” too.
“We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did,” Holder told David Axelrod, former senior adviser for President Obama, in a CNN podcast interview. “But I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.”
Still, Holder, who was attorney general when Snowden’s 2013 leak occurred, said, “What he did — and the way he did it — was inappropriate and illegal.”
“He harmed American interests,” Holder said. “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. There were all kinds of re-dos that had to be put in place as a result of what he did, and while those things were being done, we were blind in certain really critical areas. So what he did was not without consequence.”
Snowden has been living in asylum in Russia since fleeing the United States, where he was charged with espionagerelated to the leak of classified intelligence documents. Holder urged Snowden to return to the U.S. to face those charges.
“I think that he’s got to make a decision,” Holder said. “He’s broken the law in my view. He needs to get lawyers, come on back, and decide, see what he wants to do: Go to trial, try to cut a deal.”
“I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done,” Holder added. “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.”
In 2014, Holder said that U.S. prosecutors would consider cutting a deal with Snowden if he were willing to plead guilty to criminal charges.
“If Mr. Snowden wanted to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers,” Holder said at the time. “We’d do that with any defendant who wanted to enter a plea of guilty.”
Snowden has said he is willing to return to the U.S. if he were guaranteed he could receive a fair trial.
“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,” Snowden said in a video interview with the University of Chicago earlier this month. “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.”
While Holder’s feelings about Snowden’s leak may have thawed since leaving his post, former NSA director Michael Hayden’s have not.
In his recently published book, “American Intelligence in the Age of Terror,” Hayden calls Snowden “an incredibly naïve, hopelessly narcissistic and insufferably self-important defector.”
But even Hayden admitted Snowden’s leak helped accelerate a national conversation about privacy.
“The 2% of what Snowden revealed that had to do with privacy accelerated a necessary conversation,” Hayden said Sunday at the Hay festival in England. “The other 98% was about how the U.S. and foreign governments collected legitimate material … that was incredibly damaging.”