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Have we been Snowdened?

Judging from the reaction House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi elicited at Netroots Nation, some of what I say here may prove unpopular.

However, it’s not clear the boos that greeted the California representative reflect the views of Democrats generally.

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Americans seem divided about Edward Snowden and, as in many situations in which opinions are weakly held, different questions produce different answers.

The most positive views of Snowden come in response to a question from a Time poll asking whether “the person who leaked the information about this secret program did a good thing in informing the American public or a bad thing.”

More than half (54 percent) described Snowden’s action in positive terms, while just 30 percent believed he acted badly.

While this question makes a one-word reference to the secret nature of the program, it spells out the positive side more fully, defining his action as informing the public.

A tougher phrasing was put to respondents to the ABC/Washington Post poll: “The NSA surveillance program was classified as secret, and was made public by a former government contractor named Edward Snowden.”

With that introduction, 43 percent felt he should be charged with a crime, while 48 percent did not.

A slightly more neutral framing in a Reuters/Ipsos poll asked for strong conclusions, but simply noted that Snowden leaked information to the press about the National Security Agency’s monitoring of phone and Internet usage.

This wording produced a large group of undecideds. While 31 percent labeled Snowden a “patriot” and 23 percent a “traitor,” a near majority had no opinion.

With a similar introduction, but less harsh answer categories, YouGov asked whether “releasing the top secret information about government surveillance programs was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do.”

By a narrow 3-point margin, respondents said it was right.

Interestingly, Democrats were most likely to say it was wrong (by 13 points), while Republicans were evenly divided and independents applauded Snowden’s actions by a 17-point margin (lending further credence to observations in earlier columns about the role of leaders in shaping the preferences of partisans).

The youngest Americans thought he acted properly, by 27 points, whereas those over the age of 65 said Snowden was in the wrong, by 16 points.

Thus, when Netroots participants booed Pelosi for suggesting Snowden broke the law, they may have represented young America, but not Democrats.

All told, these polls suggest Americans view Snowden’s actions positively, by a net of between 24 and 3 points — which is somewhere between even division and overwhelming support.

Personally, I think none of the questions adequately reflect the issues involved in Snowden’s case, though, given their complexity, poll questions cannot be expected to do so.

While his actions initiated an important conversation about the balance between civil liberties and security, Snowden was not, in my view, a high-minded whistle-blower engaged in a crusade of conscience.

A properly motivated whistle-blower would have gone first to his supervisor and then to the inspector general tasked with investigating abuses.

If he failed to get satisfaction, he might have tried the Judiciary, or the congressional Intelligence committees, or even members of those committees like Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) who have been raising alarms about domestic surveillance. 

As far as we know, Snowden did none of this. He talked to the Chinese before talking to Congress or the courts.

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, this is not a secret history, but rather an ongoing intelligence operation. Like the operation or not, running to the press and to China to tell his story does not reflect well on Snowden.

It makes him more criminal than patriot, more wrongdoer than heroic whistle-blower.

I’m glad Democrats agree with me. I’m stunned most Republicans don’t.
 
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.