The Washington Post

Poll: Most Americans say Snowden leaks harmed national security

In this image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Oct. 11, former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks during a presentation ceremony for the Sam Adams Award in Moscow, Russia. (Uncredited/AP)

Americans increasingly believe that former federal contractor Edward Snowden’s exposure of U.S. surveillance programs damaged national security, even as the programs have sparked widespread privacy concerns, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll has found.

Six in 10 Americans — 60 percent — say Snowden’s actions harmed U.S. security, increasing 11 percentage points from July after a cascade of news reports based on his disclosures detailed the National Security Agency’s expansive web of telephone and Internet surveillance efforts. Clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe disclosures have harmed national security.

“We’ve been caught with our hands in the dirt,” Sandra Albert of Connecticut said in a follow-up interview. She said she thinks the disclosures damaged the nation’s reputation around the world. Others lamented the strategic setback. “If you give the other team your playbook, it’s going to be kind of hard to beat them,” said Ron Hoar of Ocean City, Md.

Snowden receives persistent negative reviews, unchanged after months in exile in Russia. More than half of poll respondents — 52 percent — say he should be charged with a crime, nearly identical to a July Post-ABC survey. And 55 percent say he was wrong to expose the NSA’s intelligence-gathering efforts.

The poll shows that Americans are dissatisfied with President Obama’s role on the issue. Only 35 percent approve of his handling of the NSA’s surveillance activity, while 53 percent disapprove. For the first time in Post-ABC surveys, fewer than half of Americans say he is honest, understands people’s problems and is a strong leader.  

Changing views on surveillance, leaks

Revelations of surveillance programs have clearly heightened privacy worries. A majority now say surveillance programs intrude on their personal privacy rights, and more than two-thirds think they intrude on at least some Americans’ privacy. Nearly half also say that surveillance violates the rights of foreign citizens and governments, an issue thrust into the spotlight after German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused U.S. intelligence agencies of monitoring her phone.

Dueling concerns about privacy and national security are fueling a division over the NSA’s efforts: Forty-six percent say the agency “goes too far” in its surveillance activities, but just as many say its programs are “about right” (37 percent) or don’t go far enough (10 percent).

Although concern about privacy intrusions is widespread, Americans express ranging beliefs about who is targeted and whether the surveillance is justified. Most poll respondents think the NSA’s surveillance program intrudes on some Americans’ privacy rights — 68 percent say this — while 54 percent see intrusions on their own privacy, 49 percent count foreign governments as victims and 48 percent say this of foreign citizens.

Among those who say surveillance programs intrude on their privacy rights or those of other Americans, a clear majority say such actions are unjustified. But those who see intrusions on foreign citizens are less lopsided, believing by a narrow margin that intrusions are unjustified. And those who say the NSA intrudes on foreign governments’ privacy are equally apt to say intrusions are justified as unjustified.

Snowden’s disclosures, initially reported in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper this year, detailed several major NSA surveillance efforts.

A telephone surveillance program gathers billions of records of Americans’ calls — phone numbers, length and time of calls, but not their content — from U.S. phone companies. NSA analysts are allowed to search them only for counterterrorism purposes.

A separate effort collects the actual content of e-mail and phone calls from U.S. companies and is supposed to target only foreigners located overseas.

Obama has ordered reviews of these programs, and different groups of lawmakers have introduced competing packages of legislation. Some bills propose ending the bulk collection of phone records; others would explicitly authorize that action.

“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience” he said at an event in June.

Peyton M. Craighill and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

Scott Clement is the polling manager at The Washington Post, specializing in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

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