Following disclosures about the National Security Agency's massive surveillance programs, a majority of Americans believe the U.S. government is doing a poor job of protecting privacy rights, according to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Close to 60 percent of Americans oppose the NSA's collection of data on telephone and Internet usage. A similar majority opposes the legal process supervised by a secret federal court that oversees the government's classified surveillance.
The American public is still anxious about terrorism as the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches. About 6 in 10 Americans feel it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice rights to confront terrorism.
But suspicions about the government's promises to protect civil liberties have deepened since 2011. Only 53 percent now say the government does a good job of ensuring freedoms, compared to 60 percent two years ago.
The shift in public attitudes follows a three-month barrage of leaks to media organizations by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who released secret documents about the surveillance agency's inner workings.
In follow-up interviews after the poll, some respondents described Snowden as a criminal and an attention-seeker. Others called him a whistleblower. But many agree that his disclosures have highlighted the once-remote issue of government surveillance.
"It's not surprising this was going on, but I think all these revelations brought it home to people," said Sam Thomas, a former musician from Knoxville, Tenn. "This is the eroding of American rights as we used to know it."
Not until Snowden's leaks was the massive NSA trawling — of domestic telephone numbers, and their calling patterns, and the agency's collection of Americans' Internet user names, IP addresses and other metadata swept up in surveillance of foreign terror suspects — confirmed and detailed. The new poll sought to measure the public's views on the revealed NSA activities, and it also tracked Americans' shifting opinions over time.
President Barack Obama has sought to reassure Americans that the government's data collection does not extend to the contents of their phone calls and text messages. "Nobody is listening to your phone calls," he said after the first wave of disclosures in June. He added: "They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content."
But a majority of Americans appear doubtful. Some 56 percent oppose the NSA's collection of telephone records for future investigations even though they do not include actual conversations. And 54 percent oppose the government's collection and retention of Internet metadata for future investigations that avoids actual email contents; only 34 percent favor such efforts.
Even stronger majorities oppose unauthorized government surveillance of phone calls and Internet mail traffic within the U.S. As many as 71 percent do not want officials eavesdropping on U.S. phone calls without court warrants; 62 percent oppose collection of the contents of Americans' emails without warrants.
Donald Sigley, who works in freight logistics in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he is skeptical but is willing to cut the government some slack as long as they show good faith in ensuring the surveillance programs do not veer out of control.
"This is sensitive information and it could come back and bite somebody down the road," Sigley said. He is fine with the government's intrusion into some forms of personal data, but says he would feel safer with strong oversight and the strict use of court warrants. "I do worry about what they'll do with it in the future."
Even before Snowden's revelations, many Americans put a premium on privacy and civil liberties. The 2011 AP-NORC Center poll showed just 40 percent felt that the government did a good job in protecting their privacy. That dropped to 34 percent in this year's survey.
Americans are divided on whether the government ought to prove its intelligence operations abide by civil rights protections. Fifty-one percent of people polled said it is more important to keep the details of those programs secret, but 43 percent preferred to have proof that civil rights have not been violated.
Civil liberties advocates say they have seen a sharp rise in public interest in their causes in recent months after years of lukewarm support.
"For the first time, the public is able to see what's going on behind closed doors and it's changing minds," said Trevor Timm, a staffer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has sued the government to obtain secret documents on surveillance.
Obama administration officials have openly acknowledged public discontent. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday on oversight of the NSA's surveillance programs, NSA General Counsel Robert S. Litt said the agency would consider changes that "provide greater public confidence."
Breakdowns of polling data show clear generational divides.
Despite lingering concerns about terrorism, younger Americans appear more insistent than older Americans on greater transparency about surveillance programs as a way to ensure that privacy rights are upheld. Some 72 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 believe a leaker may be justified in providing illegal disclosures if they show the government broke the law. By contrast, 54 percent of those over age 45 say the same.
The growing anxiety about the erosion of civil liberties coincides with deepening pessimism about the war on terrorist organizations. In a poll conducted two years ago by the AP-NORC Center, 53 percent of Americans felt the U.S. was likely to win the war in terrorism over the coming decade or that it had already done so. Now, just 44 percent of Americans expect that victory by 2023.
Americans are less nervous about other precautions that have become institutionalized since the 9/11 attacks. Despite an initial burst of controversy, more Americans favor random full-body scans or pat-downs of passengers at airports — 62 percent now compared to 58 percent in 2011.
The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted Aug. 12-29, 2013 by NORC at the University of Chicago. It involved landline and cellphone interviews in English or Spanish with 1,008 adults nationwide. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.
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