Edward Snowden a hero to many young Americans, poll suggests

Edward Snowden performed a public service in leaking information about NSA programs, say 60 percent of Americans age 18 to 29, according to a poll. Tea partyers and liberals also approve.

Kin Cheung/AP
A TV screen shows Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Monday. Polls suggest Americans have conflicting views about his actions.

A majority of Americans believe Edward Snowden should be criminally prosecuted for leaking classified information about government surveillance programs, according to a new national poll. But you might be surprised by the unlikely grouping of cohorts who suggest the information he has revealed is in the public interest. 

First off, 54 percent of Americans say the government should pursue a criminal case against Mr. Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who has fled to Hong Kong, according to a new Pew Research Center and USA Today survey. But digging into the numbers, it’s interesting to note that tea party loyalists, liberals, and young people suggest the National Security Administration leak outlining extensive phone and e-mail monitoring programs is in the public interest.

People who identify themselves as tea partyers believe the release of this information is in the public interest by a 56 to 39 percent margin. An almost identical segment of liberals – 57 to 38 percent – say the same.

Meanwhile, the 18-to-29-year-old set feel even more strongly – 60 percent to 34 percent – that American citizens are well-served by the knowledge Snowden has provided. And a minority of young people, 44 percent, believe he – or as the survey frames it, “the person responsible for leaking the classified information” – should face criminal charges.

What unites these subsets of the population? Former President George W. Bush might call them freedom lovers.

“We saw the same pattern with the Patriot Act,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “This pattern was particularly acute in the West. These issues unite the people who dislike government interference and believe in ‘black helicopters’ with liberals who since Vietnam dislike and distrust government in many of its war and terrorist activities.”

The poll also shows a partisan shift in feelings about personal privacy since Mr. Bush held office. In 2006, 77 percent of Democrats said they would feel their personal privacy was violated if they learned the government was collecting their personal data, while just 28 percent of Republicans agreed. In the latest survey, those numbers reverse – 68 percent of Republicans said they would feel violated, while 53 percent of Democrats agree.

Perhaps these changes in sentiment have something – everything? – to do with who holds the White House and is ultimately overseeing sensitive intelligence programs. If respondents supported the incumbent at the polls, they’re more likely to trust his motivations and give him the benefit of the doubt.

At least for a time. President Obama has seen his approval numbers take a nose dive in recent days, in particular those young people who twice helped him get elected are showing their discontent with the latest batch of scandals plaguing the administration, Snowden’s included. Mr. Obama’s overall rating with those ages 18 to 29 has declined 17 points and is at 48 percent, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.

As for Snowden, who is making the very most of his more than 15 minutes of fame via web chats and interviews, opinions are deeply divided.

Though the Pew/USA Today poll shows a majority believe he should be charged, a Reuters survey indicates more view him as a patriot than a traitor.

"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Snowden told the South China Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, last week.

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