Edward Snowden sues Norway to avoid extradition charges
Edward Snowden: traitor or hero? Former US Attorney General Eric Holder can't quite seem to make up his mind.Getty Images

In what appears to be a startling turnaround in opinion, the former top law enforcement official in America said that US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, "performed a public service" when he leaked classified documents revealing wide-ranging indiscriminate government surveillance of citizens both at home and abroad.

"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," former attorney general Eric Holder said on The Axe Files, a podcast featuring President Obama's campaign strategist, David Axelrod.

But that doesn't mean Snowden should be handed a get-out-of-jail-free card, Holder emphasised: "I would say that doing what he did – and the way he did it – was inappropriate and illegal."

Holder, who led the US Department of Justice during the massive document leak, said Snowden "harmed American interests" by releasing the files.

"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," Holder explained.

"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."

Snowden appears at CES in robot form
Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is awarded the Bjornson prize in Molde, Norway September 5, 2015Reuters

Holder said Snowden should return to the US to face trial, but he also believes that any judge who might hear the case against Snowden should also consider his contribution to the debate about mass surveillance.

"I think in deciding what an appropriate sentence should be, I think a judge could take into account the usefulness of having had that national debate," Holder said.

Snowden, who is being sheltered in Russia from American charges of treason, has said he would return home if he had faith in a fair trial — but so far, he doesn't, recently demanding that whistleblowers receive 'iron clad' protection after an ex Pentagon staff investigator revealed how intimidation was used against an ex employee who lifted the lid on shady practices.

Snowden indicated Holder's comments left him completely confused. Did he perform a public service or were his actions "completely inappropriate?" He lamented the various direction changes by American officials on Twitter:

Holder had previously appeared to champion a softer stance on Snowden. He told a university audience in 2014 that the government could accept a plea deal with Snowden if he were to return to the US and plead guilty to criminal charges.