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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday there is "no basis'' for considering clemency for former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, yet the nation's top law enforcement officer said a "healthy conversation" about the nation's intelligence gathering activities has followed the unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
In a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY, Holder declined comment on whether he was aware that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private cellphone communications were being monitored by U.S. officials. He said the sources of most intelligence information are not generally disclosed when they are presented for review.
The attorney general, in addition to addressing the politically charged debate over NSA surveillance, said he was optimistic that some gun control measures that failed in the aftermath of last year's Newtown school massacre — including a proposal for universal background checks — would eventually win out.
"Over time, more people in Washington are going to be responding to the people they represent,'' he said. "You can't have members of Congress who are so out of step.''
He said new consideration should be given to the reinstatement of parole for federal offenders to help restore fairness in the criminal justice system and relieve overcrowding in the swelling federal prison system.
The federal system, which holds about 220,000 inmates, is at least 40% over capacity, according to the Justice Department. Parole, which was abolished for federal offenders convicted after 1987 as part of tough anti-crime measures of the time, "ought to be discussed,'' Holder said.
The attorney general, who once left open the possibility of leaving the Justice Department during a sometimes rocky tenure in which he has been the target of stinging criticism for his response to a botched gun trafficking investigation, his desire to prosecute terror suspects in civilian court and the government's seizure of reporters' telephone records as part of national security leak inquires, expressed a renewed desire Tuesday to remain on the job.
The new energy, he said, is related in part to ongoing efforts to revamp the federal criminal justice system, which has condemned scores of non-violent offenders, many of them people of color, to long prison terms and has dramatically driven up the costs of incarceration.
This year, he called for changing mandatory minimum sentencing policies and the early release of seniors and ill inmates who no longer pose a danger to society, yet require expensive special treatment,
"It's something that really animates me and makes me want to continue in this job,'' Holder said Tuesday. "There are still things I want to do.''
The attorney general was tending to part of that effort Tuesday when he traveled to Philadelphia to express support for federal initiatives assisting hundreds of former prisoners with their return to society throughout the country.
"We are at a point where we have to do things differently,'' he told participants in Philadelphia's Supervision to Aid Re-entry Program (STAR). The program, which provides counseling, job assistance and other help for returning offenders, has reduced the frequency with which high-risk former offenders are returned to prison, from an average of nearly 50% for offenders who do not participate in such programs to about 20% for those involved in the Philadelphia program.
"We can't incarcerate our way out of this situation,'' he said.