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Story highlights

Eric Holder says Edward Snowden acted illegally, but that he did a public service

The former Attorney General also said there is a "race-based" component to Trump's campaign

Editor’s Note: The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The author works at the institute.

(CNN) —  

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says Edward Snowden performed a “public service” by triggering a debate over surveillance techniques, but still must pay a penalty for illegally leaking a trove of classified intelligence documents.

“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 told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” a podcast produced by CNN and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

“Now I would say that doing what he did – and the way he did it – was inappropriate and illegal,” Holder added.

Holder said 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,” said Holder, who was at the helm of the Justice Department when Snowden leaked U.S. surveillance secrets. “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. 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, who has spent the last few years in exile in Russia, should return to the U.S. to deal with the consequences, Holder noted.

“I think that he’s got to make a decision. He’s broken the law in my view. He needs to get lawyers, come on back, and decide, see what he wants to do: Go to trial, try to cut a deal. I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done.”

Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in May 2014
Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images
Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in May 2014

“But,” Holder emphasized, “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.”

At a University of Chicago Institute of Politics event earlier this month, Snowden – appearing via videoconference from Russia – said he would return to the U.S. if he could receive a fair trial.

“I’ve already said from the very first moment that if the government was willing to provide a fair trial, if I had access to public interest defenses and other things like that, I would want to come home and make my case to the jury,” Snowden told University of Chicago Law Prof. Geoffrey Stone. “But, as I think you’re quite familiar, the Espionage Act does not permit a public interest defense. You’re not allowed to speak the word ‘whistleblower’ at trial.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday said President Barack Obama does not believe Snowden has performed a public service.

“What Mr. Holder is articulating there is the view of the administration, which is specifically that Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes,” Earnest said. “He should return to the United States, he should be afforded due process and that’s essentially how this situation should be handled. But Mr. Snowden has not done so.”

During the hour-long conversation with Axelrod, Holder – the country’s first African-American attorney general – also accused presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump of playing the race card in his campaign.

Edward Snowden during an interview in Hong Kong.
The Guardian via Getty Images/File
Edward Snowden during an interview in Hong Kong.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Holder told Axelrod. “The fact that he questioned the legitimacy of President Obama by questioning where he was born, what he’s said about Mexicans…I think there’s a race-based component to his campaign. I think he appeals too often to the worst side of us as Americans.”

To hear the whole conversation with Holder, which also touched on his childhood in New York City, his tenure at the Justice Department, and more, click on http://podcast.cnn.com. To get “The Axe Files” podcast every week, subscribe at http://itunes.com/theaxefiles.

CNN’s Allie Malloy contributed to this report.