Why the government's snooping is here to stay
Despite all the headlines, a new poll shows Americans are fine with the government spying on them
President Obama and his administration have faced tough questions over the past week, following the publication of leaked classified information that exposed new details about the scope and size of controversial intelligence-gathering practices carried out by the National Security Agency and the FBI.
Yet despite those revelations, a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released Monday suggested that the White House has little reason to fear a public backlash: A comfortable majority of Americans approves of the government's spying efforts. Furthermore, the survey indicated that public opinion on the issue has remained virtually unchanged over the years, even as new details about those efforts have emerged.
According to the poll, 56 percent of respondents said the NSA's tracking of millions of Americans' phone records was an "acceptable" way for the government to monitor terrorism, versus 41 percent who said it was not. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of respondents said it was more important for the government to investigate terrorism than to refrain from violating Americans' personal privacy.
Strikingly, that split was almost identical to what Pew found in 2010 and in 2006 — shortly after President George W. Bush's use of warrantless wiretaps became public.
That, Pew concluded, left "no indications that last week's revelations of the government's collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy."
While the overall percentages that supported or opposed such surveillance remained unchanged since 2006, the partisan makeup of those camps did. In 2006, 75 percent of Republicans approved of the NSA's actions, compared to just 37 percent of Democrats. In the latest survey, 52 percent of Republicans said the NSA's phone-tracking was acceptable, as did 64 percent of Democrats.
"Partisan hypocrisy, it would seem, infects members of both parties," said Juliet Lapidos at The New York Times. However, Lapidos also noted that Congress introduced new judicial safeguards after Bush's warrantless program was revealed, possibly setting Democrats' minds at ease.
Most strikingly, the poll found that respondents were closely split over whether the government should go even further to police terrorism than it currently does. While a slim 52 percent majority said the government should not be able to monitor everyone's emails, 45 percent said the government should have that authority.
Within the government, there is a near-universal consensus that the intelligence operations in question are legal and necessary. Even Republicans, who have taken every opportunity to keep a slew of White House scandals in the news, have lined up behind Obama on the issue.
What that all suggests is that there's practically no political pressure, either from inside the government or from the public, for the White House to curb its counterterrorism efforts and order the NSA to rein in its surveillance.