Many View NSA Intrusions as Unjustified But More See Damage from Snowden Leaks

By Gary Langer

Nov 21, 2013 12:01am

Public belief that the National Security Agency unnecessarily intrudes on privacy rights has grown, but so has the sense that Edward Snowden damaged U.S. security by disclosing the spy agency’s activities – with the latter a more powerful factor in views on charging him with a crime.

Forty-eight percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll think the NSA intrudes without justification on some Americans’ privacy rights and 42 percent think it intrudes unjustifiably on their own privacy, both up by 8 percentage points since July. Similarly, 46 percent say the spy agency “goes too far” in its surveillance activities.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

Many more overall think the agency violates privacy – 68 percent say it does so in terms of “some Americans,” and 54 percent say the NSA intrudes on their own privacy. However two in 10 in the first case, and one in 10 in the latter, see those intrusions as justified.

At the same time, the survey, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds an 11-point jump in the belief that disclosures by Snowden, a former NSA contractor now holed up in Russia, have harmed U.S. security: Sixty percent say so, vs. 49 percent last summer.

Many fewer, 29 percent, think his leaks have done “a great deal” of harm to U.S. security. But this too is up, by 7 points. And the belief that Snowden damaged U.S. security is a key driver in support for prosecuting him.

Barack Obama, for his part, has just a 35 percent approval rating for handling NSA surveillance activities, with 53 percent disapproving – reflecting his troubled ratings overall amid strong public criticism of his rollout of the new federal health care law.

CRIME? – All told, 52 percent support prosecuting Snowden, essentially unchanged from July. But that view ranges widely on the basis of two measures: Chiefly, the damage to U.S. security; and, less strongly, whether the NSA is violating personal privacy without justification.

On the first, among people who think Snowden did a great deal of harm to U.S. security, 81 percent favor charging him criminally. That declines to 61 percent of those who think he did less severe damage – and just 26 percent of those who see no harm to U.S. security.

On the second, while the relationship is a weaker one, support for prosecuting Snowden is 42 percent among those who think the NSA is intruding unjustifiably on their personal privacy, vs. 62 percent among those who see either justified intrusions or no intrusions at all.

While the NSA is vulnerable on the intrusion issue, these results suggest greater peril in terms of public opinion for Snowden, to the extent that the case is made, or strengthened, that he’s harmed U.S. security. Indeed, regardless of whether he should be charged, 55 percent say he did the “wrong thing” by disclosing the NSA’s intelligence gathering, vs. 37 percent who say it was the right thing. That also is strongly influenced by views on the impact of the leaks on national security.

Separately, concerns about unjustified intrusions outside U.S. borders weaken sharply. Just 27 percent of Americans think the NSA is intruding without justification on the rights of foreign citizens, and only 23 percent see unjustified intrusions on the rights of foreign governments.

GROUPS – Typical partisan and ideological divisions largely break down on the NSA issue, given the mix of considerations it raises, including personal liberty and privacy, security concerns and political predispositions alike.

Democrats, protective of the Obama administration, are less critical of the NSA; 37 percent say it “goes too far,” for example, vs. 47 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of independents. And Democrats are a broad 18 points less likely than Republicans and independents to think the NSA intrudes unjustifiably on some Americans’ privacy rights.

Conservatives, and especially strong conservatives, are much more likely than moderates or liberals to think the NSA intrudes on privacy without justification. In a related result, among strong supporters of the Tea Party political movement, 69 percent think the NSA goes too far, 71 percent think it intrudes unjustifiably on some Americans’ privacy and 66 percent think it intrudes without justification on their own privacy rights. Among strong opponents of the Tea Party these shrink to 45, 37 and 31 percent, respectively.

Finally, young adults are sharply different than their elders in views on Snowden, who turned 30 in June. Just 35 percent of those under age 30 say he should be charged with a crime, compared with 57 percent of those 30 and up. And 56 percent of young adults say he did the “right thing” in leaking NSA documents. Just 32 percent of their elders agree.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 14-17, 2013, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,006 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.

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