The public is divided over whether the leak of classified information about NSA phone and internet surveillance serves the public interest. But a majority says that former government contractor Edward Snowden should be criminally prosecuted.
The new national survey, conducted June 12-16 by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY among 1,512 adults, finds that 44% think that the release of classified information about the NSA program harms the public interest, while 49% say it serves the public interest.
However, 54% of the public – including identical majorities of Republicans and Democrats (59% each) – say the government should pursue a criminal case against the person responsible for leaking the classified information about the program.
Young people, by 60% to 34%, think that the NSA leak serves the public interest. Americans 30 and older are divided (46% serves vs. 47% harms). And while those younger than 30 are divided over whether Snowden should be prosecuted, majorities in older age groups favor the government pursuing a criminal case against him. The survey finds that the public has a more positive opinion about the impact of the revelations of NSA communications surveillance on the public interest than it did about the release of a massive trove of classified material about U.S. diplomatic relations by the Wikileaks website two-and-half years ago.
In December 2010, just 29% said the Wikileaks disclosures served the public interest while 53% said they harmed it. Today, about as many say the leak about the NSA surveillance program serves the public interest (49%) as harms it (44%).
In terms of the impact of the NSA surveillance on personal privacy, about half of Americans (54%) say the U.S. government probably has collected data about their personal phone calls, emails and other online communications. More (63%) say that if they knew that the government had collected such information, they would feel like their privacy would have been violated.
The public is divided over the NSA surveillance program itself. About as many approve (48%) as disapprove (47%) of the “government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.”
Yet a majority of Americans (53%) think the government’s collection of telephone and internet data has helped prevent terrorist attacks, while 41% say it has not.
There are wider partisan differences in views of the program than about whether the leak of NSA surveillance serves the public interest, or whether Snowden should be criminally prosecuted. Nearly six-in-ten Democrats (58%) approve of the government’s data collection efforts, compared with 45% of Republicans and 42% of independents. Democrats are also more likely than Republicans or independents to say the program has helped prevent terrorist attacks.
In a Pew Research Center/Washington Post survey released a week ago, more Democrats (64%) than Republicans (52%) said it was acceptable for the NSA to get “secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” In that survey overall, 56% of the public said they considered the NSA phone tracking program acceptable.
Young People More Likely to Say NSA Leak Serves Public Interest
People under 30 are the only age group in which a clear majority (60%) says that the release of classified information about the NSA phone and email data collection program serves the public interest.
Those 30 to 64 are divided while people 65 and older think that the NSA disclosures harm the public interest (by 53% to 36%).
Young people are also the only age group that is divided over whether Snowden should be criminally prosecuted: 44% say he should be prosecuted while 50% say he should not. Among older age groups, more favor than oppose criminal prosecution.
People under 30 also are somewhat more skeptical about the NSA program’s effectiveness. Just 43% of young people say the program has helped prevent attacks, compared with about half or more in older age groups.
Tea Party Republicans, Liberals Say NSA Leak Is in Public Interest
Tea Party Republicans are paying a great deal of attention to news about the NSA surveillance program and are highly critical of it. By more than two-to-one (65% to 29%) Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party disapprove of the government collecting data as part of anti-terrorism efforts. By comparison, Republicans who do not express agreement with the Tea Party are divided (50% approve, 46% disapprove).
On the question of whether the leaked information serves the public interest, there are significant divides within both parties’ political bases. In the GOP, Tea Party Republicans are more likely than their more moderate counterparts to see the release of the classified information as serving the public interest. Within the Democratic Party, more liberals than moderates and conservatives view the leaks as a good thing.
The same gaps exist when it comes to whether to prosecute Edward Snowden. There is substantially less support for pursuing a case against the leaker among Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats than there is among moderate segments of the party bases.
Most Think Gov’t Has Probably Collected Their Data
When asked how they would feel if they knew that the federal government had collected data about their phone and internet activity, 63% say they would feel that their personal privacy has been violated.
Men are more likely than women to think the government has collected their personal data (58% vs. 49%). Two-thirds of blacks (66%) believe this, compared to about half of whites (51%) and Hispanics (50%).
However, there are only modest age and partisan differences in people’s opinions about whether the government has probably accessed their personal data. About half (52%) of Republicans and Democrats say the government has probably collected their own data, as do 54% of independents.
Yet there are sharper partisan divisions about how people would feel if they knew the U.S. government had collected data about their personal phone and internet activity. Fully 69% of independents and 68% of Republicans would consider this a violation of their personal privacy, compared with 53% of Democrats.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party say the government probably has collected data about their own personal calls and online communications; just 49% of non-Tea Party Republicans say the government has probably accessed their personal information. Tea Party Republicans (78%) also are more likely than non-Tea Party Republicans (64%) to say they would feel their privacy had been violated if they knew the government had collected their personal information.
Overall, the share of the public who say they would feel their personal privacy had been violated is little changed from 2006, when a similar Gallup/USA Today question asked about telephone companies providing people’s records to the federal government (63% today vs. 57% then).
But there has been a large partisan shift in these opinions. When asked about the Bush-era program in 2006, 77% of Democrats said they would feel their privacy had been violated, compared with just 28% of Republicans. Today, only about half of Democrats (53%) say they would feel their privacy has been violated if they knew the government had collected their personal data. By contrast, the percentage of Republicans who feel their privacy would be violated has more than doubled (from 28% to 68%).