A new Pew Research Center poll finds that President Barack Obama's speech last week had little impact on public perceptions of the National Security Administration's surveillance programs and that only “40 percent approve of the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 53 percent disapprove.” That's down from 50 percent approval in July.
Interestingly, though, the public's disapproval of these programs doesn't translate into approval of the means by which we learned about them: “a 56 percent majority wants to see the government pursue a criminal case against [Edward] Snowden, while 32 percent oppose this” — mostly unchanged since the summer.
Yes, there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here, but I think it's also an indication of why the extensive debate over the motives and culpability of Snowden and the journalists he worked with can feel a bit fruitless. An already widely discussed essay in the New Republic by Sean Wilentz, for instance, admonishes liberals to be wary of paranoid libertarians like Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange, who “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”
Whether we should feel some type of way about the actions of Snowden, and whether there should be legal consequences for his actions is an interesting debate. But I'd argue it's a much less important one than whether the American surveillance state has grown too powerful and invasive as well as just how much privacy we're willing to give up in return for security.
Given that most Americans seem — perhaps contradictorily — to be treating them as separate issues, it strikes me that the discussion has shifted a bit too much toward a debate on Snowden's actions and away from the NSA's, which is ultimately to the NSA's benefit.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.