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Fox News Poll: Mixed views on NSA surveillance program

Views are split over whether the National Security Agency surveillance program is more likely to help catch terrorists or hurt law-abiding Americans.  In addition, about a third of voters believe the government is listening to their calls and reading their email, according to a just-released Fox News poll.

The new poll finds 46 percent believe the NSA electronic tracking program is more likely to "hurt law-abiding Americans by using private information improperly."  Almost as many -- 44 percent -- think it is more likely to “help catch terrorists and protect Americans.”

That’s a reversal from 2006 -- five years into the war on terrorism and halfway through former Republican President George W. Bush’s second term.  At that time, more voters thought the program would help catch terrorists (49 percent) than hurt Americans (40 percent). 

Over half of Democrats today say the program will help catch terrorists (55 percent), while in 2006 over half said the opposite (52 percent). 

The same shift is seen among Republicans:  a slim 51-percent majority thinks the NSA efforts will hurt Americans, while previously a 70-percent majority said it would help catch terrorists (May 2006).

Voters who identify with the Tea Party movement (67 percent), people under 30 years old (58 percent) and independents (57 percent) are among those most likely to see the surveillance activities as hurting Americans.

By a 61-32 percent margin, voters disapprove of how Barack Obama is handling the NSA program to gather phone and Internet records.  In addition, 71 percent want Congress to continue to investigate the program, and 59 percent say it has weakened their faith in the federal government.  That includes 39 percent who say it has weakened their faith “a lot.”

Earlier this month Edward Snowden, a former government contractor, leaked classified documents that disclosed the previously secret NSA program of collecting the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans.  By a 44-22 percent margin, voters are twice as likely to describe the former contractor as a “misguided criminal” than a “hero.”  Only 8 percent say he was a spy for China.  Another 24 percent are unsure

Pluralities of Republicans (46 percent), Democrats (44 percent) and independents (40 percent) say Snowden is best described as a misguided criminal.

Soon after news of the government’s snooping on U.S. citizens broke, President Obama defended the program and insisted, “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”

Even so, 34 percent of voters think Uncle Sam is eavesdropping.  Another 33 percent think he’s reading their email. 

There’s quite a bit of overlap: 73 percent of those who believe the government is listening to their calls also believe big brother is reading their email.

Republicans (37 percent), independents (34 percent) and Democrats (32 percent) are about equally likely to think the government is listening.

Three-quarters of voters are at least somewhat concerned the NSA data-mining program will be misused to target specific groups the way the IRS did (74 percent).

Still, more voters are concerned about private companies (80 percent) than the government (58 percent) gathering private information about them.

Seventy percent think Internet companies should be held responsible if, as a result of cooperating with the government, damaging information about individual Americans is released.

The Fox News poll is based on landline and cell phone interviews with 1,012 randomly chosen registered voters nationwide and was conducted under the joint direction of Anderson Robbins Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R) from June 22 to June 24.  The full poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.