FILE - Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
FILE - Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says Edward Snowden performed a "public service" when the ex-National Security Agency contractor leaked classified intelligence documents. 

Holder, however, was quick to put into context what appeared to be praise of a person the U.S. considers a criminal.

"I thought the president put it best when he said, 'Just because we have the ability to do something, doesn't mean we should,'" Holder said during an appearance on the "Axe Files," a podcast hosted by David Axelrod, produced by CNN and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

The Obama administration was constantly weighing the value of surveillance against the issue of privacy, Holder explained.

Still, the former top American law enforcement official added "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."

By leaking a flood of classified information to select news outlets in 2013, Snowden revealed the extent to which the Obama administration was collecting personal data far and above what took place under The Patriot Act following the 9/11 attacks.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks past the log
German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks during a convention of the Christian Democratic Union in Karlsruhe, Germany, Dec. 14, 2015.

The revelations not only shocked the American public, but also international allies (think Angela Merkel, whose personal cellphone was revealed to have been bugged).

The crisis prompted President Barack Obama to convene a panel that criticized the National Security Agency's domestic data collection — that is the bulk of metadata on Americans, which can show the most intimate details of an individual's life.

For some, Snowden is a traitor who gave away all kinds of secrets to our enemies, thus putting the public in danger. 

FILE - Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Capitol to
Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Capitol to protest spying on Americans by the National Security Agency in Washington on Oct. 26, 2013. (AP)

For others, he is a brave American activist, who put his life on the line to reveal the violations of the U.S. constitution.

During the podcast, Holder reflected on the nuance of the Snowden case by saying that, "... doing what he did and the way he did it was inappropriate and illegal."

In the eyes of the U.S. government, 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," Holder said.

Holder is currently trending in the top 10 on Twitter. Snowden lives in exile in Russia, but occasionally makes video appearances.