Former Attorney General says Edward Snowden performed a public service

Though he "harmed American interests," says Eric Holder, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's leaks "were also a public service."

Holder was speaking with David Axelrod, a CNN political commentator and former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, on the podcast "The Axe Files."

"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. "Now I would say that doing what he did — and the way he did it — was inappropriate and illegal."

Holder said Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia, should return to the U.S. and face consequences for his actions. But he also said a judge, when determining an appropriate sentence for Snowden, "could take into account the usefulness of having had that national debate."

Snowden's leaks exposed the vast extent of domestic surveillance by American security agencies.