While recognizing that it's important to fight terrorism with all of the tools at our disposal, the American people are having a hard time finding good guys in the story about the National Security Agency's surveillance program.
Government officials from the president on down have defended the program and claim it has prevented several terrorist attacks. However, questions have been raised about some of those claims, and just 35 percent of Americans believe the officials are telling the truth. A larger number (45 percent) believe they are just trying to justify the surveillance program now that it's been made public.
There are legitimate concerns about the sweeping nature of the surveillance effort. Two out of three voters believe the fight could be carried on with a more carefully targeted effort. Whether or not that belief is accurate, it's unnerving to many that all the discussion about constitutional safeguards took place behind closed doors. But our leaders decided it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
That's especially troubling when six out of 10 voters worry that other government agencies will use the NSA data to harass political opponents.
Yet despite concerns about the program, not many people are cheering for Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. Just 12 percent see him as a hero, while 21 percent view him as a traitor. The vast majority says he's somewhere in between the two or that it's just too early to tell.
Many are suspicious of Snowden's motives, especially given that he showed up first in Hong Kong. On top of that, most (57 percent) believe it's at least somewhat likely that his disclosures have already hurt U.S. national security.
Reporters covering the story don't come off very well, either. Despite calls for prosecution from politicians like Republican Congressman Peter King, 68 percent of Americans do not believe journalists should get into legal trouble for publishing leaked information from whistleblowers. But just because reporters should be free to do their jobs without threat of jail time does not mean people respect the way they do those jobs.
When media outlets publish classified information, most Americans believe they are more likely to be hurting national security than serving the public good.
While none of the public players comes off looking great in the NSA story, there has been some good news resulting from the disclosure of the surveillance program. First, there is an increased awareness among the public about the digital trails we leave.
Before the disclosure, 68 percent believed that their own online communications were private. Now, just 49 percent have that level of comfort. Only 12 percent are "very confident" about their privacy.
Second, there is now an opportunity for a healthy debate on the issue. It's not partisan. President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney are on the same side. The nation needs a serious discussion about what kind of oversight and protection is needed to honor the Constitution while still effectively fighting the terrorists who want to end our way of life.
Finally, while they're hard to find, there are some good guys in the story. We should never forget that most of the NSA employees working on this project are dedicated to protecting our country and doing so in a manner that upholds the inalienable rights of the American people.
Scott Rasmussen is founder and president of Rasmussen Reports. He is the author of “Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System,” “In Search of Self-Governance,” and “The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt.” Read more reports from Scott Rasmussen — Click Here Now.