Eric Holder admits Edward Snowden's leaks were a 'public service'

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Eric Holder: Edward Snowden 'performed a public service'

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."

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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."

See photos from the Snowden scandal:

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Eric Holder admits Edward Snowden's leaks were a 'public service'
A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this file image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks during a presentation ceremony for the Sam Adams Award in Moscow, Russia. Snowden was awarded the Sam Adams Award, according to videos released by the organization WikiLeaks. The award ceremony was attended by three previous recipients. (AP Photo, File)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 02: Detail of the cufflinks of former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell as he testifies before the House Select Intelligence Committee April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of 'The Benghazi Talking Points and Michael J. Morell's Role in Shaping the Administration's Narrative.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 02: Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell is sworn in prior to testimony before the House Select Intelligence Committee April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of 'The Benghazi Talking Points and Michael J. Morell's Role in Shaping the Administration's Narrative.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A picture taken on February 25, 2015 shows the logo of Gemalto in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. AFP PHOTO KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors gather in the Gemalto NV pavilion at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The Mobile World Congress, where 1,500 exhibitors converge to discuss the future of wireless communication, is a global showcase for the mobile technology industry and runs from Feb. 25 through Feb. 28. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Gemalto CEO Olivier Piou (C) arrives for a press conference on February 25, 2015 in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. AFP PHOTO KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Gemalto CEO Olivier Piou (C) gives a press conference on February 25, 2015 in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. AFP PHOTO KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Gemalto CEO Olivier Piou shows a cell phone sim card before a press conference on February 25, 2015 in Paris. European SIM maker Gemalto said it had suffered hacking attacks that may have been conducted by US and British intelligence agencies but denied any 'massive theft' of encryption keys that could be used to spy on conversations. AFP PHOTO KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 29: Symbolic photo for data protection, reflection of the seal of the National Security Agency in a computer hard drive on January 29, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
Michael Rogers, director of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. The hacking attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment is prompting U.S. officials to rethink when the government should help private companies defend against and deter digital assaults, Rogers said. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Visitors chat near a reception desk at the Gemalto NV promotional stand on the opening day of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. The Mobile World Congress, operated by the GSMA, expects 60,000 visitors and 1400 companies to attend the four-day technology industry event which runs Feb. 27 through March 1. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NSA leaker Edward Snowden appears on a live video feed broadcast from Moscow at an event sponsored by the ACLU Hawaii in Honolulu on Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
An employee displays a Gemalto NV M2M quad sim card at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The Mobile World Congress, where 1,500 exhibitors converge to discuss the future of wireless communication, is a global showcase for the mobile technology industry and runs from Feb. 25 through Feb. 28. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
GERMANY, BONN - DECEMBER 12: Symbol photo of a computer hard drive with the logo of the National Security Agency (NSA), on December 12, 2014 in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee November 20, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Cybersecurity Threats: The Way Forward.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A photographer takes picture of U.S. President Barack Obama and Edward Snowden held by pro-democractic legislator Gary Fan Kwok-wai during a news conference in Hong Kong Friday, June 14, 2013. Two lawmakers in Hong Kong said on Friday that they had written to U.S. President Obama to try to persuade him not to bring charges against the former US intelligence contractor Snowden. Snowden revealed last weekend he was the source of a major leak of top-secret information on NSA surveillance, saying he was uncovering wrongdoing. He spoke to reporters from an undisclosed location in the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo is displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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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."

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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.


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