A majority of Americans oppose National Security Agency programs using records gathered from telecom and Internet companies, according to a poll released Wednesday.
Fifty-three percent told Gallup they disagree with federal efforts to “compile telephone call logs and Internet communications,” with 37% saying they approved.
The poll differs from findings of a Pew Research Center/Washington Post survey released Monday, which found that 56% of Americans believe the NSA’s use of secret court orders in an effort to prevent terrorism was acceptable. In that poll, opposition was higher on a question asking whether the government should monitor everyone’s email to curtail terrorism, with 52% saying no and 45% in favor.
Three other polls released this week have found varying results in questions about the issue, with much of the outcome depending on the specific wording of questions. Pollsters typically find that kind of widespread variation on subjects that members of the public have not thought about extensively or are unfamiliar with.
The Pew poll, for example, told respondents that the NSA had been “getting secret court orders to track telephone call records … in an effort to investigate terrorism.” The Gallup poll made no mention of court orders. In addition, Pew asked if the government action was “acceptable” or “unacceptable,” while Gallup asked if people “approve” or “disapprove” – questions that can sometimes elicit different responses.
The Internet pollster YouGov, in a survey done for the Huffington Post, asked whether respondents thought “collecting and analyzing Americans’ phone records” was “justified” or “unnecessary” as a “way to combat terrorism.” Asking the question that way produced a lower level of support, with 22% saying the action was “justified,” and a much higher level of people saying they were unsure, 23%.
With President Obama in the White House, Democrats stand in support of the NSA’s methods, 49% to 40% in the Gallup survey. Republicans were opposed 63% to 32%. When President George W. Bush was in office, Republicans were supportive of government surveillance efforts and Democrats opposed.
Part of that shift may reflect the fact that on an issue in which many of the facts remain classified, members of the public are more willing to trust the judgment of an administration they support overall.
That same partisan divide remains in the debate on whether the man responsible for the leaks exposing NSA practices, Edward Snowden, was right in his actions. Democrats, by 49% to 39%, say Snowden, a former NSA contractor, was wrong to leak classified information to the Guardian and the Washington Post, according to Gallup. Among Republicans, the numbers were reversed, 49% saying he was right and 38% saying he was wrong.
Regardless of Snowden’s culpability, a majority of Americans don’t fault the news media for collaborating with him, with 59% of Americans saying they were right to publish their reports. That level of support remained relatively consistent for respondents from both parties.
Public sentiment may also shift as more information about the secretive government programs is revealed. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who worked with Snowden, has mentioned there is more to come, and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) said Wednesday that the leaks so far were only “the tip of the iceberg.”
Gallup’s poll was conducted by telephone Monday through Tuesday among a random sample of 1,008 Americans 18 or older, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.