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On of the nation's top former public servants has just commended NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden for performing his own style of "public service" in releasing a cache of classified documents that blew open the National Security Agency's surveillance program.
Eric Holder, the former US Attorney General, made the comments over the weekend, recognizing that Snowden has sparked much national and international debate on surveillance, but maintained that the former NSA contractor should still be punished for leaking the documents.
"We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did," Holder told David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack 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."
Holder, who was Attorney General in 2013 when Snowden first brought the NSA's surveillance program to light, added that what the former NSA contractor did "and the way he did it — was inappropriate and illegal," adding that the actions put US agents at risk as well as damaged relations with other countries.
Snowden fled the United States in May 2013 and has been living in Russia since being granted asylum there later that year. Supporters see Snowden as a whistleblower who boldly exposed government excess. But the US government has filed espionage charges against him for leaking intelligence information.
Over the last three years, Holder has hinted to media that Snowden's actions have led to a healthy conversation, and at possible deals to bring him back to the US, but the Justice Department has never shifted from its official policy on its charges against the contractor.
Holder announced he would leave office in September 2014, and months later, Loretta Lynch was sworn in as Attorney General after a lengthy confirmation process. Lynch has held firm to the Obama Administration's position on bringing Snowden back to the US to face charges.
Over the weekend, Holder once again encouraged Snowden to return to America to potentially go to trial or cut a deal.
"I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done," Holder 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."
Snowden indicated earlier this month that he would consider coming back to the States if he were given a fair trial, but said he was not confident that would happen.
"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," Snowden said. "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."