Poll: Most Americans now oppose the NSA program

5:00 PM, Jan 21, 2014   |    comments
A sign outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md.(Photo: Patrick Semansky AP)
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Most Americans now disapprove of the NSA's sweeping collection of phone metadata, a new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds, and they're inclined to think there aren't adequate limits in place to what the government can collect.

President Obama's announcement Friday of changes in the surveillance programs has done little to allay those concerns: By 73%-21%, those who paid attention to the speech say his proposals won't make much difference in protecting people's privacy.

The poll of 1,504 adults, taken Wednesday through Sunday, shows a public that is more receptive than before to the arguments made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. His leak of intelligence documents since last spring has fueled a global debate over the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans and spying on foreign leaders.

Those surveyed now split, 45%-43%, on whether Snowden's disclosures have helped or harmed the public interest.

The snapshot of public opinion comes as the White House, the intelligence agencies and Congress weigh significant changes in the way the programs are run. In his address, Obama insisted no illegalities had been exposed but proposed steps to reassure Americans that proper safeguards were in place.

By nearly 3-1, 70%-26%, Americans say they shouldn't have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism.

That may reflect the increasing distance from the Sept. 11 attacks more than a decade ago that prompted some more of the more aggressive surveillance procedures.

MORE: A look back at the history of spycraft

"In trading off between civil liberty and national security, the American public decisively favors national security when it feels the threat acutely and imminently but tilts in the other direction when the threats seem more remote," says Peter Feaver, a National Security Council aide for presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Among those who paid attention to Obama's speech, only 13% say his proposals to rein in the surveillance programs would make it more difficult for the government to fight terrorism. Only half of those surveyed said they had paid even a little attention to the speech, however.

The president called for a third party rather than the government to hold the massive stores of phone metadata, and he said intelligence analysts would need a court order to search it except in emergencies. He proposed establishing a panel of independent lawyers who could argue in some cases before the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. And he said the United States would stop eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders.

Attitudes toward the surveillance program have turned more negative since last June and July, when the Snowden revelations were new. In polls in June and July 2013, more Americans approved of the program than disapproved. Now, by 53%-40%, a majority disapproves.

Even so, by 56%-32%, those surveyed say the government should pursue a criminal case against Snowden.

"Snowden's decision to run away first to China and then to Russia -- in other words, to two of the powerful countries most associated in the public mind with being potential adversaries and systematic violators of human rights -- has probably contributed to the public's ambivalence toward him," says Feaver, now a political science professor at Duke University. "Even those members of the public who think his actions may have served some public interest somehow recognize that his actions have almost certainly helped Russia and China in their competition with the United States."

The margin of error for the full sample was +/-3 percentage points.

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