WASHINGTON -- A majority of Americans say the person responsible for leaking top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance of phone and Internet records should be criminally prosecuted, a new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds, even as views are closely divided about the wisdom of the programs themselves.
The poll, taken Wednesday through Sunday, shows a nation riven by cross-currents about the unauthorized disclosures by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, of sweeping surveillance programs that can collect information about millions of Americans and foreigners.
By 54%-38%, those surveyed say he should be prosecuted. Most Americans say the programs have helped prevent terrorist attacks, by 53%-41%, a point pressed by top administration officials including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
There is an almost even split on the most fundamental question. By 48%-47%, Americans divide over whether they approve or disapprove of the programs as part of the effort to fight terrorism. By another narrow margin, 49%-44%, they say the release of classified information serves rather than harms the public interest.
The mix of views, some of them conflicting, underscores the complications of public opinion on the issue. Previous polls have shown divergent results when asked about the programs. That may help explain why both President Obama and Snowden publicly were making their arguments for and against the programs in interviews published and aired Monday.
"The more people learn about this, it could affect their final judgment on whether the government was right or wrong to do what it's been doing," says Michael Dimmock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "What I think you're seeing in a lot of the surveys is that the public isn't particularly happy about this program, particularly in the realm of civil liberties and privacy, but a lot of people are willing to give the government a certain amount of leeway in fighting against terrorism."
The apparent ambivalence is no surprise, he says. "The struggle to find the balance between civil liberties and security is one of the toughest struggles Americans face because we hold both of those principles dearly."
By now, nearly everyone is aware of the issue. In the USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll, 51% say they had heard a lot about it; 35% said they had heard a little.
A 54% majority of Americans assume that the government probably has collected data about their own communication and most aren't happy about it. Nearly two-thirds, 63%, say they would feel their personal privacy had been violated if that happened.
In a polarized world, there is no partisan difference on some of the questions. Republicans and Democrats hold virtually identical views on whether the leaks serve the public interest 49% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats say it did and on whether the government should prosecute the leaker. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans and Democrats endorse that idea.
There was a significant generational divide on some questions. Sixty percent of those 18 to 29 years old say the leaks serve the public interest. Thirty-six percent of those 65 and older agree.
The survey of 1,512 adults by landline and cellphone has a margin of error of +/-2.9 percentage points.
In an online chat Monday hosted by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, which first published the leaks, Snowden denied that he had shared secret intelligence with the Chinese government or that he had taken steps against the interests of the United States.
"It's important to bear in mind I'm being called a traitor by men like former vice president Dick Cheney," Snowden said in the chat, blaming Cheney for violations of civil liberties and the Iraq War. "Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American."
An interview with Obama on PBS' Charlie Rose show is scheduled to air Monday night. The session, which included questions about the NSA controversy, was recorded at the White House Sunday.