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NSA - Friend or Foe?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Americans have a love/hate relationship with the National Security Agency, but the love side of the equation’s been growing as they worry more about the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Congress voted late yesterday to rein in the spy agency’s surveillance practices somewhat in the name of protecting individual privacy, but even before that vote, just 32% of Likely U.S. Voters felt the nation’s legal system overprotected national security at the expense of individual rights.  Nearly as many (27%) said the legal system protects individual rights at the expense of the nation’s security, while 35% described the balance as about right.

Republicans tend to feel more strongly that the legal system allows individual rights to trump national security. Democrats and unaffiliated voters worry more that national security has the upper hand.

But all voters have been warming to the NSA since it was first disclosed in 2013 that the agency was secretly collecting the phone records and e-mails of millions of innocent Americans as part of its wide search for terrorists. Just 26% supported the program at that time, while 59% were opposed.

Two years later, however, voters are evenly divided over the NSA’s surveillance program: 43% favor it, while 44% are opposed. That’s the highest level of support to date - despite a federal appeals court ruling just before our latest survey that the NSA’s mass collection of phone records is illegal.

Perhaps in part that increased support is because just 34% think the United States is safer today than it was before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the lowest level of confidence in five years. Pluralities of voters have said consistently for months now that the terrorists are beating the United States and its allies in the War on Terror.

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While Americans are confident in the privacy of their own Internet communications, they still recognize that it's no longer possible to guarantee complete online privacy. As recently as last November, 44% said it was likely the federal government has monitored their Internet activity or that of someone in their family, with 21% who said it was Very Likely.

Seventy-three percent (73%) of voters think it’s likely the NSA phone and e-mail surveillance program has inappropriately violated the privacy of innocent Americans, with 41% who say it’s Very Likely. Those views have changed little over the last couple of years.

Still, most voters (59%) now think it’s possible to satisfy public concern about the NSA surveillance program and keep track of the nation’s terrorist enemies, up from 48% in January of last year.

When the NSA program was first disclosed two years ago, fears ran high that the data being secretly collected might be used for political harassment or to keep tabs on Congress, generals and judges.  But over time voters became more accepting of the NSA’s defense that the program had prevented several terrorist attacks.

Most voters have worried, too, that the continuing disclosure of the NSA program is hurting U.S. national security.

The man who disclosed to the media what the NSA’s been up to, former government analyst Edward Snowden, is no national hero either. Last time we asked, 42% of voters described Snowden, now avoiding prosecution by living in Russia, as a spy. Just 30% favored giving him amnesty from prosecution in exchange for the return of all classified information he still possesses.

Voters remain wary of the federal government, that’s for sure. Sixty percent (60%) consider the government today a threat to individual liberty rather than a protector of their rights.  But for now at least the threat of terrorism is a greater concern than whether Uncle Sam is reading their e-mail or monitoring their phone calls.

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