When It Comes To Public Opinion, More News Is Not Good News For NSA

New public opinion polls show distaste for National Security Agency surveillance does not break cleanly across party lines. Despite the administration's attempts otherwise, one new study finds that the more people know about the NSA, the more they dislike it.

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It's been five months since Edward Snowden first leaked NSA secrets, and there are signs those disclosures are undermining the public's confidence in spy agencies. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center and Stanford University suggest that the more Americans learn about how surveillance is conducted, the less they support it.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: New public opinion research raises big questions about the U.S. government's strategy for dealing with Edward Snowden's leaks. Professor Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, puts it this way.

AMY ZEGART: NSA's woes are bleeding into a public concern about the entire intelligence enterprise of our U.S. government.

JOHNSON: Zegart's poll says confidence in the accuracy of U.S. intelligence gathering has dropped eight points since last year. And the more people understand what the NSA does, the less they like it. Respondents knowledgeable enough to be able to explain the agency's gathering of phone meta-data and people who could name the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, offered less support for the intelligence community.

And more than half of people in a new poll by the Pew Research Center said snooping on the phones of Allied leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel should be out of bounds.

Carroll Doherty, an associate director at Pew, says distaste for phone surveillance spans the political spectrum.

CARROLL DOHERTY: This is the rare area of public policy where - a rare area where there's no partisan differences. Majorities of all three groups: Republicans, Democrats and independents, say this practice is unacceptable.

JOHNSON: Although opposition is bipartisan, it's not widespread. Most Americans still don't rank it as a top issue.

So far, U.S. intelligence leaders have defended the snooping as legal. But they haven't shared a lot of details aside from the material Snowden already leaked.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress why.

JAMES CLAPPER: Well, the conduct of intelligence is premised on the notion that we can do it secretly and we don't count on it being revealed in the newspaper.

JOHNSON: Thousands of Snowden documents are still out there. And polls suggest that the U.S. needs to take a different approach if it wants the surveillance to be viewed as legitimate.

Again, Amy Zegart.

ZEGART: The National Security Agency and the Obama administration have not done nearly enough to assure the American people that they're thinking seriously about these tradeoffs. It's not enough to say that these programs are legal. The American people need to think that they're valuable and that's the critical difference.

JOHNSON: In her view, the NSA needs to start talking about why the snooping is effective and opening up about some of the congressional oversight that's gone on in the shadows.

ZEGART: The Senate Intelligence Committee is holding more oversight hearings now than it has by a large percentage but fewer of those hearings are open to the public.

JOHNSON: So is there anything the White House can do? Crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall, a 30-year veteran of the trade, says for the government - just like for some companies - the options can be limited.

ERIC DEZENHALL: I mean, this is not the kind of thing where Obama or anybody can come out there and do the equivalent of a product recall. OK, everybody, this is defective, we won't do surveillance anymore.

JOHNSON: Dezenhall says the White House might want to focus its energy on something practical.

DEZENHALL: It's a lot easier to cut a deal with a member of Congress or a technology company who, when all is said and done, have some sort of investment in working things out. Even if you lose some points, at least it's somewhere to begin.

JOHNSON: And Amy Zegart's work at the Hoover Institution suggests another possibility. Zegart says people who watch spy themed movies and TV shows have very favorable views of the NSA and its work. And those viewers are much more likely to believe the agency is telling the truth.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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