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Former US Attorney General surprises with comments on Edward Snowden

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Vincent Kessler/Reuters

(Read caption) Edward Snowden speaks via videoconference with the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. Former US Attorney General Eric Holder said Snowden performed a "public service" for igniting the debate on surveillance, although he believes that how Mr. Snowden did so was inappropriate.

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Former US Attorney General Eric Holder says Edward Snowden performed a "public service" by setting off a national debate over global surveillance, but that the fugitive must still face the "consequences" for leaking classified information.

"We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, 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," Mr. Holder told David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Obama, in an episode of his podcast "The Axe Files" released on Monday.

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But Mr. Snowden has "broken the law in my view," Holder added. "I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done," he said, encouraging the former government contractor to return from exile, face prosecution or cut a deal.

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Holder's comments represent a departure from the attitude of President Obama and his administration, who say that Mr. Snowden is not a patriot: his National Security Agency leaks compromised the White House's efforts to reform the Agency, and hindered "thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place," as Mr. Obama said in August 2013. 

Yet Holder's emphasis that Snowden ought to face prosecution is part of a recurring debate over whether the man sometimes considered a heroic whistleblower, sometimes a traitor should still be punished if he, in fact, served public interests.

In 2013, Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents from the NSA, which revealed numerous global surveillance programs, including the collection of vast amounts of phone and Internet data. Facing three felonies, Snowden has lived in Russia ever since.

Speaking via videoconference in February, Snowden told a crowd in New Hampshire he would return to the United States if the government guaranteed him a fair trial, where he could argue "a public interest defense of why this was done and allow a jury to decide," as The Christian Science Monitor's Lonnie Shekhtman reported in February.

Two of the felonies fall under the Espionage Act, which "bars defendants from arguing that their actions were made in the public interest, effectively leaving national security and intelligence community whistleblowers without any legal protections," Ms. Shekhtman wrote.

In his interview with Mr. Axelrod, Holder indicated that any judge that sentences Snowden should be able to consider his contribution to the debate about surveillance. Yet, Holder is no longer a part of the Obama Administration, and his successor hasn't implied that she agrees.

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Last July, Holder said he believed a plea deal with Snowden could be possible. A spokeswoman for US Attorney General Loretta Lynch responded by saying the administration still intends to prosecute Snowden, however.

Members of Congress are of different opinions, as well. Although a Republican and Democratic senator agreed in 2014 on the need to reform the NSA, they didn't see eye to eye on Snowden's treatment. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) told an interviewer that Snowden should not receive "a death penalty or life in prison."

"I think, really, in the end, history's going to judge that he revealed great abuses of our government and great abuses of our intelligence community," Senator Rand told ABC's "This Week." 

New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D), however, said that if Snowden truly considers himself part of the "grand tradition of civil disobedience in this country" he should stand trial and face the consequences.  

Like their representatives, the American public is divided over Snowden’s contribution to the debate about surveillance and whether he should be prosecuted. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found 45 percent of Americans said Snowden's actions served the public interest; 43 percent said they harmed it. These opinions become much wider across age demographics. A large majority of millennials said Snowden served the public interest, with 57 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds agreeing he did. Support for Snowden slips to 48 percent among 30-to-49-year olds, 39 percent among 50-to-64-year olds, and just 35 percent among those older than 65.

Americans were split along the same demographics over whether the US should prosecute Snowden. Sixty-one percent of those older than 65 said the country should, while 42 percent of millennials said the same.