Holder: We owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for his "public service" ... and a jail term

Edward Snowden: Hero or criminal? When University of Chicago law professors David Strauss asks former Attorney General Eric Holder that question, the answer was … yes. Did Snowden raise serious questions about the potential for abuse in our surveillance programs? Absolutely, and we owe him some gratitude for making the stakes clear. We also own him a prosecution if and when Snowden ever returns for the severe damage created by Snowden from the manner in which he raised those legitimate issues:

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says Edward Snowden performed a “public service” by triggering a debate over surveillance techniques, but still must pay a penalty for illegally leaking a trove of classified intelligence documents.

“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,” Holder told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” a podcast produced by CNN and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

On the other hand …

“Now I would say that doing what he did — and the way he did it — was inappropriate and illegal,” Holder added.

Holder said Snowden jeopardized America’s security interests by leaking classified information while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency in 2013.

“He harmed American interests,” said Holder, who was at the helm of the Justice Department when Snowden leaked U.S. surveillance secrets. “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.”

This might be one of the few times I find myself in agreement with Holder on anything. Snowden did raise serious questions, not just about the scope and breadth of surveillance, but the ways in which key Obama administration officials lied to Congress about it. One of them, James Clapper, still has his job. Holder doesn’t get asked about that, which is too bad, because his answer would be enlightening.

On the other other hand, Holder finds himself “more on Tim Cook and the Apple side” of the Apple-DoJ fight over access to devices. After poking fun at Android users, Holder expressed considerable skepticism about government access to private information on now-ubiquitous cell phones. Of course, that’s why subpoenas exist — to allow for judicial oversight into that process, and the Constitution allows for government to seize records as long as due process is followed and probable cause can be established, but that wasn’t the big issue at hand with Apple. The DoJ wanted Apple to build a back door into its system, and Holder expresses considerable skepticism that (a) government can actually order that, and (b) it could be kept secure from government outside of the subpoena process — or other governments, for that matter.

Holder also discusses FBI Director James Comey’s remarks about the “Ferguson Effect,” the perceived rise in crime facilitated by a retreat of law enforcement after the Michael Brown debacle in Ferguson, Missouri. “Jim Comey is a friend for whom I have the greatest respect,” Holder says, calling his own role in Comey’s appointment “instrumental,” but disagreed with Comey’s support for the Ferguson Effect theory. “He’s got it totally wrong,” Holder said. “I don’t think there’s any statistical proof that shows that there is the “Ferguson Effect,” that this focusing on police departments necessarily meant that police are reluctant to do their jobs.” I’d bet a number of police officers would beg to differ.

You can watch the whole interview here:

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