President Barack Obama calls for a revamping of U.S. government surveillance procedures during a speech at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2014. Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president does not agree with remarks made Monday by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, that the leaks of classified information by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 that exposed the NSA's sweeping domestic phone surveillance program amounted to a "public service." File Photo by Aude Guerrucci/Pool/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, May 31 (UPI) -- The White House on Tuesday expressed a rare disagreement with the nation's former top law enforcement official, who said whistleblower Edward Snowden performed a "public service" by taking actions that led to reforms of government intelligence and surveillance programs.
Monday, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder remarked that he believed Snowden's disclosures three years ago benefited the nation because it led to reforms of the National Security Agency's program, which privacy advocates criticized heavily.
"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 said.
The six-year attorney general made the comments while acknowledging the illegality of what he called "inappropriate" actions by the former federal defense contractor.
During a press briefing Tuesday, Obama administration spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House agrees with Holder that Snowden broke the law when he leaked the data -- but did not share the former Justice Department chief's view that it was a public service.
A Chinese news magazine features a front-page story on U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden is sold at a news stand in Beijing in 2013. Snowden sought asylum in Russia after allegedly leaking data to news media concerning the National Security Agency's domestic phone surveillnce program. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
"The concern that we have is that the information that was revealed by Edward Snowden put the United States and certain U.S. officials in grave danger," Earnest said. "The fact of the matter is there is a path for whistleblowers to take if they have legitimate concerns about what they are seeing, particularly when it comes to the handling of classified, sensitive information. And Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes because he did not do that."
Holder said the leaks were a public service insofar as they were the catalysts for debate and, ultimately, change -- not that Snowden performed a public service by violating federal law. When asked if the Obama White House agreed with that assertion, Earnest said no.
"President Obama came into office vowing to pursue reforms of many of these programs," he said. "Much of the work to reform these programs was being discussed and in some cases was even initiated before anybody had ever heard of Edward Snowden."
Snowden sought asylum in Russia following the leaks. Holder indicated last year that he could strike a plea deal if he returns to the United States.
Obama appointed Holder to lead the Justice Department after assuming office in 2009. He departed last year and was replaced by Loretta Lynch.