President Obama's NSA changes may not be enough

January 22, 2014, 11:31 AM GMT+0

Most Americans think Edward Snowden did a service to our country by bringing NSA activities to light, but the public tends to doubt that the President has made any major changes since.

Americans continue to dislike the National Security Agency’s data collection and categorize it as intrusive and unjustified. The President’s Friday speech did little to change minds about the NSA or his handling of it; in fact, Americans prefer even more limits on the agency, according to the latest Economist/YouGov Poll. As for the man who first revealed the extent of the NSA’s data collection, Edward Snowden, American think he did the public a service, but wish he’d done so somewhat differently.

Criticism of the NSA extends to how President Obama has handled the situation. Although last Friday the President laid out his plans for reform of the data collection effort, accepting some of the suggestions made by a White House panel, and promising that the NSA would no longer store the files of all phone metadata (they would be maintained by an as-yet-undetermined “third party” and accessible only with a warrant), many Americans think he did not go far enough.

President Obama’s approval rating for handling the National Security Agency rose six points in the wake of his speech – but remains only at 35%.

The same low percentage say they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the President to oversee reform of the NSA – an agency that a majority (54%) disapprove of.

What Americans want may be something more than the President provided them on Friday. In last week’s Economist/YouGov Poll a majority felt that there needed to be limits set on the Agency, with more than a quarter wanting major limits. But after Friday’s speech only a third believe the President offered any changes in his speech – and just 8% think he offered major changes.

Asked to weigh civil liberties against national security, civil liberties wins. In fact, a majority would prefer that the government respect civil liberties, even if that means accepting some risk to national security.

There are only small differences between Republicans and Democrats and between liberals and conservatives on this question; support for civil liberties rises with education, and is highest in the West. A majority in the Northeast, the region which experienced several terror attacks on September 11, 2001 and during last year’s Boston Marathon, wants the government to pursue national security, even if that means limits on national security.

That pro-civil liberties majority gets even broader when Americans are asked about a specific agency action: by two to one they continue to believe that collecting and analyzing Americans’ phone records is not justified as a way to combat terrorism and is instead an unnecessary intrusion into Americans’ lives.

But there are limits in the public’s view of whose civil liberties should be protected: by more than two to one, they would not extend those protections across the border. Americans would not give foreign citizens living in other countries the same privacy protections they want for American citizens. That may be because three-quarters believe even other friendly nations have spied on U.S. citizens in the U.S.; even more, 86%, believe friendly nations have spied on the U.S. government.

This poll offers a more nuanced view of how Americans view Edward Snowden, the man who started the public outcry about the NSA’s data collection activities. The President’s speech and proposed reforms made little direct impact on overall views of Snowden: last week and this week Americans are evenly divided in whether or not they had a favorable opinion of the former analyst and his actions. As they were last week, they are divided on whether or not Snowden should be prosecuted for his actions. But while Americans give Snowden credit for his original actions, that credit does not extend to what happened next.

Americans have positive feelings about the original leak – 61% agree that Snowden performed a service by letting the public know about the Agency’s activities. They credit him even though more agree that he hurt U.S. security by doing so than disagree.

But what Snowden did then is where he and the country part company. 55% say Snowden had good intentions, but went about his activities the wrong way; 59% think he hurt his case when asked for asylum in Russia.

By more than two to one, Americans think Snowden should not have left the country at all – and that he should have been prepared to accept the consequences of his actions. Younger adults and political independents are more willing to take Snowden’s side on all these questions, but all groups agree he should have stayed in the U.S. and accept the consequences of his actions, rather than seek asylum elsewhere.

Image: Getty

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

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