Eric Holder admits Edward Snowden leaks were "useful" -- but there's a catch

Former attorney general concedes the NSA whistleblower performed a service, but isn't quite singing his praises

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published July 8, 2015 4:21PM (EDT)


Eric Holder is out with a pair of new interviews before returning to private practice later this month and the former Department of Justice head now says he is "not sure" Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, but he does think that the former government contractor's revelations sparked a "useful" and "necessary debate" about the U.S. government's bulk data collection program.

The former Attorney General told the Huffington Post this week that while he disagreed with Snowden's methods, he believed the leaks have been proven beneficial to the public discourse and would result in change. "I think the manner in which he made the disclosures has proven to be extremely harmful to the United States, but as the same time as I acknowledged in the interviews I did, a debate has been spurred in our country that I think at the end of the day has been a useful one and resulted in appropriate changes to the way in which we gather information," Holder said.

But Holder wouldn't go so far as to praise Snowden as a whistleblower. Under Holder's tenure, the Justice Department charged Snowden with three felony violations of the Espionage Act. Snowden has been living in Russia, where he's received asylum, since 2013. Snowden's leaks revealed the National Security Agency’s secret domestic spying apparatus.

A May 2015 poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans want Congress to curtail the NSA’s mass surveillance powers, including a majority of Republicans.

Still, Holder withholds any direct praise for Snowden himself, arguing that a similar shift could have occurred without Snowden's leaks."If Snowden, for instance, had gone to certain members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and made disclosure to them, that debate could have occurred in a way that was less harmful to the interests of the United States," Holder argued.

Despite his hesitance to credit Snowden directly, Holder suggested that Snowden could work out a plea deal with Justice Department to secure a return to the U.S. Holder told Yahoo News “I certainly think there could be a basis for a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with. I think the possibility exists.”

"I think there is an appropriate way to resolve the matter which could prove to be satisfactory to both sides," Holder added during his Huffington Post interview. This isn't the first time Holder has suggested some leniency for Snowden. In 2014, he told MSNBC that the U.S. would be willing to “engage in conversation” with Snowden and his lawyers.

But Holder is no longer the top cop at the Justice Department and this is no longer his decision to make. As Melanie Newman, chief spokeswoman for Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Holder’s successor, pointed out to Yahoo News.“This is an ongoing case so I am not going to get into specific details but I can say our position regarding bringing Edward Snowden back to the United States to face charges has not changed,” she said in an email.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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