TIME POLL: Support for Snowden—and His Prosecution

54% of respondents said the leaker, Edward Snowden, did a “good thing” in releasing information about the government programs.

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TIME Magazine Cover, June 24, 2013
Photo-Illustration by Joe Magee for TIME. Swartz: Fred Benenson; Snowden: Guardian / Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / EPA; Manning: Patrick Semansky / AP

More than half of Americans approve of a former intelligence contractor’s decision to leak classified details of sprawling government surveillance programs, according to the results of a new TIME poll.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said the leaker, Edward Snowden, 29, did a “good thing” in releasing information about the government programs, which collect phone, email, and Internet search records in an effort, officials say, to prevent terrorist attacks. Just 30 percent disagreed.

But an almost identical number of Americans —  53 percent —  still said he should be prosecuted for the leak, compared to 28% who said he should not. Americans aged 18 to 34 break from older generations in showing far more support for Snowden’s actions. Just 41 percent of that cohort say he should face charges, while 43 percent say he should not. Just 19 percent of that age group say the leak was a “bad thing.”

(VIDEO: Edward Snowden: A Modern-Day Daniel Ellsberg, Except for One Key Difference)

Overall, Americans are sharply divided over the government’s use of surveillance programs to prevent terrorist attacks, according to the results of the poll. Forty-eight percent of Americans approve of the surveillance programs, while 44 percent disapprove, a statistical tie given the poll’s four-point margin of error.

The program’s existence, revealed last week by the Guardian and the Washington Post, provoked a massive uproar in Washington and among privacy and digital advocates. President Barack Obama, who opposed many of the same programs during the Bush administration before extending them as president, said last week that they are overseen by all three branches of the federal government.

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch, but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here,” Obama said Friday.

A majority of the poll’s respondents say that the surveillance programs have helped protect national security, with 63 percent saying they’ve had “some” or a “great deal” of impact in protecting the country. Just 31 percent says they’ve done “not much” or “nothing at all.”

A narrow plurality of those polled, 48 percent to 43 percent, believe that the federal government is striking the right balance between protecting Americans’ privacy and protecting their physical well-being or that the government should be doing more to prevent terrorism.

(MORE: Hong Kong Will Decide My Fate, Edward Snowden Tells South China Morning Post)

Nearly 60 percent believe the revelations will not force the government to curtail the surveillance program. But 76 percent of Americans believe there will soon be additional disclosures that the spying programs are bigger and more widespread than currently known.

Americans are largely split on partisan grounds as to whether Obama is more careful about respecting privacy than President George W. Bush. Twenty-eight percent said Bush was more careful, one-quarter sided with Obama, and 42 percent say there has been little difference between the two.

The poll coincides with the release of TIME’s latest cover “The Informers,” examining the new generation of leakers. TIME’s Michael Scherer writes:

The U.S. national security infrastructure was built to defend against foreign enemies and the spies they recruit. But now there is a new threat, exemplified by the pasty faces and rimless glasses of the young people many in Congress now call traitors while their online supporters hail them as whistleblowers. They are twenty-something homegrown computer geeks like Snowden, with utopian ideas of how the world should work. Just as anti-war protesters of the Vietnam Era argued that peace, not war, was the natural state of man, this new breed of technophiles believes that transparency and personal privacy are the foundations of a free society. Secrecy and surveillance, therefore, are steps towards tyranny. And in the face of tyranny, rebellion is noble.

The poll, conducted for TIME on June 10 and 11 by the survey research firm Abt SRBI, surveyed 805 people over landlines and cell phones.