In post-Snowden era, NSA maintains surprisingly favorable image

But that doesn't mean it's popular. A Pew poll released today found that the only federal agency less well-liked among Americans was the Internal Revenue Service.

Wolfgang Kumm/AP/file
Edward Snowden followed the 2014 Carl von Ossietzky Medal award ceremony by the International League for Human Rights via live video transmission in Berlin on Dec. 14.

Edward Snowden's release of thousands of documents related to the National Security Agency's surveillance and spying efforts since 2013 has roiled US intelligence, seen him flee to Russia, and ignited a national debate over balancing personal privacy and national security.

But a new poll from Pew Research Center suggests that, so far at least, Snowden's release of information on NSA programs has had a limited effect on how the agency is viewed by the American public. Such programs have included the collection of millions of Americans' cellphone data, efforts to track the communications of Al Qaeda members in Iraq, and intelligence surveillance in China.

The Pew survey, conducted Jan. 7-11, asked respondents about their views of various federal agencies, breaking down responses by sex, political affiliation, and age.

It found that 51 percent of Americans view the NSA favorably – down from 54 percent in fall 2013 – while 37 percent have unfavorable views of the agency.

To be sure, the NSA isn't exactly popular. The only federal agency less popular among Americans was the Internal Revenue Service, which was viewed favorably by only 45 percent of Americans and was the only one in which "unfavorable" views topped favorable ones, at 48 percent. The most popular federal agencies were the Centers for Disease Control, with 70 percent "favorable," and NASA, with 68 percent.

In the latest survey, there were substantial differences in views among different cohorts. Perhaps surprisingly, younger Americans have a more favorable view of the NSA than older ones. Among adults under the age of 30, 61 percent view the NSA favorably. That drops to 55 percent among Americans 30-49 years old and to 40 percent for Americans over 65.

Only 47 percent of Republicans view the NSA well, against 58 percent of Democrats, which may reflect which party controls the presidency, though partisan views of the CIA are flipped. About 64 percent of Republicans approve of the CIA, while just 46 percent of Democrats do. Last year, the CIA and the then-Democrat controlled Senate Intelligence Committee tussled over releasing documents related to the CIA's post-9/11 torture program. In March, Dianne Feinstein, then head of the committee, publicly alleged the CIA had targeted the computers of her staffers working on the torture report.

Independents hold a 49 percent favorable view of the NSA. About 53 percent of American women favor the NSA, while 49 percent of men do.

The biggest change in view of a federal agency since the last Pew poll was for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has come under repeated attack over the past year for long waiting times for veterans seeking health care. In fall 2013, 68 percent of Americans viewed the VA favorably. That number has since fallen to 52 percent.

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