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Do Most Americans Really Think Snowden Is a Whistleblower?

More than half of Americans think Edward Snowden "is a whistle-blower, rather than a traitor," according to a widely discussed poll released by Quinnipiac University on Wednesday. The numbers -- 55 percent of those polled called him a "whistle-blower," compared to 34 percent who labeled him a "traitor" -- are pretty stunning, and have been picked up by a number of news outlets. A vindicated-sounding Glenn Greenwald cited the poll today as evidence that "Americans, to a remarkable extent, seem able and willing to disregard" what he calls "demonization campaigns" against Snowden by the New York Times and New Yorker.

Greenwald also quotes Quinnipiac Assistant Director Peter Brown, who writes in his report on the poll that "the verdict that Snowden is not a traitor goes against almost the unified view of the nation's political establishment." It's a bold assessment -- and more than a little misleading. A number of politicians have called Snowden a traitor, including Rep. John Boehner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Dick Cheney, but no U.S. military officials have. Most notably, neither has the U.S. Department of Justice, which has charged Snowden with "communication of national defense information," "willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person," and theft -- but not treason.

But more than anything, what the poll demonstrates is that Americans are more willing to call Snowden a whistleblower than a traitor. After all, those were the only two options in the question Quinnipiac asked:

Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?

Though the Quinnipiac pollsters hedge a bit by using the phrase "more of," there's still a wide gulf between those two options. "The distinction between a whistleblower and a traitor has important legal distinctions, especially for Snowden," Michael Traugott, a professor specializing in public opinion research at the University of Michigan, told Foreign Policy by email, "but I am not sure the meaning is clear to members of the general public." Katy Steinmetz at Time suggests a third option: "sorry, Quinnipiac, neither of those [options] quite fits."

There's also the potential for a response bias from the question's placement -- at the end of a survey that suggests that Americans are increasingly concerned about the government's emphasis on national security efforts at the expense of civil liberties. Traugott notes that "the Snowden question is the last in the series and the preceding ones probably contribute in a small way to the relatively positive assessment of his actions."

Nate Silver, on his Times blog, FiveThirtyEight, is concerned that the phrasing may have pushed people toward a particular conclusion as well. "The poll described Mr. Snowden as 'the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program,'" Silver wrote this afternoon. "Some Americans may be pleased by Mr. Snowden's disclosures about how the N.S.A. conducted surveillance against U.S. citizens - but displeased that he has also disclosed details about its international surveillance. The Quinnipiac poll should probably have described a fuller spectrum of the information that Mr. Snowden has released."

So are the majority of Americans really Snowden fans? Maybe. But this isn't the poll to prove it.

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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