By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roughly one in three Americans say the former security contractor who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance activity is a patriot and should not be prosecuted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.
Some 23 percent of those surveyed said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is a traitor while 31 percent said he is a patriot. Another 46 percent said they did not know.
Snowden, 29, revealed last week that the NSA is monitoring a wide swath of telephone and Internet activity as part of its counterterrorism efforts.
"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Snowden told the South China Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, in an interview published on Wednesday.
U.S. authorities have said they are weighing possible criminal charges against Snowden, who was an employee of Virginia-based consultant Booz Allen Hamilton when he leaked documents indicating the NSA's surveillance of Americans is much broader than had been disclosed publicly.
In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, 35 percent of those surveyed said Snowden should not face charges while 25 percent said he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Another 40 percent said they did not know.
Snowden told the South China Post he intends to stay in Hong Kong and fight any effort to extradite him to the United States to face legal action.
The online survey of 645 Americans was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday. It has a credibility interval of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points for each result.
Snowden's revelations, first reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post, have fueled a national discussion over how the United States should balance its national security efforts with Americans' right to privacy in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The disclosures have sparked a mix of condemnation and praise. Many members of Congress - which for years had received secret briefings on the NSA's surveillance tactics - have been particularly critical of Snowden. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Washington, called Snowden a "traitor" in a television interview, a sentiment echoed by U.S. intelligence officials.
Snowden also has been the focus of several online support campaigns, an indication that his effort to expose the surveillance tactics has resonated with some Americans.
A petition urging President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden for any crimes he may have committed has collected 63,000 signatures on the White House website since it was posted by a reader on Sunday. The White House reviews and responds to any petition that gathers more than 100,000 signatures.
Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted since the leaks were revealed last Thursday have found Americans divided over the merits of the NSA surveillance program.
Some 45 percent of those surveyed say the program is acceptable under some circumstances, while 37 percent say it is completely unacceptable, the polling found. Only 6 percent say they have no objections to the program.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Bill Trott)