Survey Says: Let's Swap Freedom for Safety (Or Illusion of Same)

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Update: For an earlier and more extensive discussion of this very poll, go to Dave Weigel's post here.

According to a new Wash Post/ABC News poll, about two-thirds of Americans agree that it "is more important right now…for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy"… than for the goverment "for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats."

The good news: Back in June 2002, almost 80 percent of Americans felt that way. So the percentage is receding as time goes on.

The bad news: Sixty-three percent don't have a problem with the NSA phone surveillance program. And 66 percent wouldn't be bothered to learn that the NSA has recorded their calls. Because, of course, as with all other goverment programs, this one will stay narrowly focused on its stated goal and not expand in other ways and directions (such as, say, to drug interdiction, because we know terrorism is really a front for drug trafficking, right?).

Poll results here.

And let's not automatically buy in to the embedded equation in the first poll question listed above: that somehow rule-of-law procedures keep the government from being able to get the bad guys. If the Moussaoui trial should have taught us anything, it was that the FBI and other elements of the U.S. law enforcement industry had what they needed to stop the 9/11 attacks. As Jeff A. Taylor wrote, it wasn't procedural roadblocks that let the killers pull off mass murder, but something far less sexy: "Dull, common, gross incompetence is again at the heart of a deadly government cluster-hump." Read "How the FBI Let 9/11 Happen" here.

NEXT: 316 Spying Fans Can't Be Wrong!

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  1. Isn’t that the basis of all government anyhow? You give up some freedom in exchange for some safety.

    It doesn’t really bother me. The government’s most egregious intrustion into my personal privacy is income taxation.

  2. Do you think the fact that over 60% of the polace use their phones for nothing more than vacuous conversation, American Idol voting, and a test bed for new Hoobastank ring tones might have skewed this opinion poll?

    This horse is dead, y’all. Move on.

    I mean no one’s even shown any love for Floyd Patterson yet. What’s up with that?

  3. “polace” should read “Populace”

  4. “And let’s not automatically buy in to the embedded equation in the first poll question listed above: that somehow rule-of-law procedures keep the government from being able to get the bad guys. If the Moussaiou trial should have taught us anything, it was that the FBI and other elements of the U.S. law enforcement industry had what they needed to stop the 9/11 attacks. As Jeff A. Taylor wrote, it wasn’t procedural roadblocks that let the killers pull off mass murder, but something far less sexy: “Dull, common, gross incompetence is again at the heart of a deadly government cluster-hump.”

    Which makes Jennifer’s comment from last night (regarding the ‘Bin Laden to Attack US’ memo being “missed” because it was a needle in a haystack of intelligence) all the more poignent.

    It’s the quality, not the quantity, of the intelligence. If the drug runners/dealers on “The Wire” can figure out how to evade spying on their conversations—even when the spying is focused directly on them, unlike the NSA spying—then surely terrorist can. It’s not like it takes alot to do the whole “drive up and down the interstate buying rechargeable non-registered cellphones at all the convenience stores” thing. And if they’re not actually listening to the calls, then I would just love to know what the actual chances of anything being prevented by this really are.

  5. “Those who would sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Ben Franklin.

    The problem is defining “essential”. I don’t care if the government has a record of me calling my mom, I do mind if they’ve recorded the call without a warrant. This program hasn’t done that. The so-called “domestic” wire-tapping program hasn’t done that either, contrary to mainstream media implications…

    So no, I’m not happy about this, but neither do I consider it an “essential” liberty that I be able to order a Pizza without the government knowing about it.

    Now, on the other hand, I would rather risk dying than to give up what I consider essential, including anything contained in the bill of rights. I just don’t see this as being one of those things.

  6. Jeff,

    Another old guy, who used to punch other people in the abdomen and face for a living, dies of old age.

    Sorry, but Patterson never did anything to garner “love” from me, other than give me a good title run on ‘Championship Boxing’ on my Sega Genesis back in the day. And, well, I guess, for that, I thank him. Thanks, Floyd. You’ll always live on in our “best fighters of all time” video games.

  7. Look at the way the question is worded.

    44. What do you think is more important right now – (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?

    “Investigate possible terrorist threats” is not an equivalent phrase to “listen to every phone conversation”. It’s possible, although sadly unlikely, that if the question had mentioned total phone surveillance, the numbers would have been totally different.

    With that said, god, this country is full of maroons.

  8. Evan, it was a joke. H&R usually has the best coverage of off-center pop culture deaths.

  9. Fred,

    That’s all well and good, but it also depends on the government being altruistic. Problem is, once you give the State the power to surveille your life, all it has to do is change the laws, and you’re suddenly a criminal. All it has to do is decide that it’s going to use its intelligence to screw over “enemies of the state”.

    In other words, your decision to trade what you view as “unessential liberties” for supposed safety, is contingent on the state of the government right now—which I’m not convinced is altruistic anyway, but assuming for the same of argument it is.

    Problem is, the state of the State changes rapidly and constantly, and before you know it, since you decided to give up your liberties, it’s using that as an excuse to bust you for smoking a joint in your own living room.

    It’s the old parable of the frog in the pot of water. Drop a frog in a boiling pot of water, and it hops out because it’s hot. But put him in lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat…he boils to death without really noticing what’s going on, because it’s so slow and incremental.

    Today, it’s tapping your phone calls. Tomorrow, it’s installing video cameras in your homes. And why not? Who gets to decide whether video cameras in your living room constitutes giving up an “essential” liberty? I’m sure that most of the same fools who support the NSA wiretapping would also be okay with the government installing video cameras in their house—after all, it’s in the interest of national security!

    These liberties which you consider inessential are certainly essential to someone, and you never miss them until they’re gone—a la Phil K. Dick’s Minority Report.

  10. The deal is that you get a graph, and if you find one bad guy somehow, you get a whole net of other bad guys to check out, and from them, others, until after a few links you’re down to hairdressers and barber shops, and have then wiped out the whole cell.

    That sounds like a good idea, but the hazard is that you could use it also on bookies, houses of ill repute, or anything else.

    So my proposal is let it drag through the courts until the need for it disappears, and then find it illegal.

  11. ” I would rather risk dying than to give up what I consider essential, including anything contained in the bill of rights. ”

    Um, Fred? Most people still recognize the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution as being in the Bill of Rights.

  12. I guess I really ought to amend my previous assertion. Cross out “most” and replace it with “a few.”

  13. I have my due process rights and my right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures violated every damn time I get on a plane. I’m pretty sure almost nobody cares about good ol’ #4 anymore.

    Also, the illiterate TSA screeners don’t like it when you call them “petty tyrants” and ask if they’ll stop violating your substantiative due process rights for a minute so you can pick up your cellphone.

  14. Fred, I love the Ben Franklin quote you used. You yourself deserve neither liberty or safety. It’s the public’s complacency, lack of indignation, lack of rage, that make it possible for the government to slowly strip away our privacy.

    “So no, I’m not happy about this, but neither do I consider it an “essential” liberty that I be able to order a Pizza without the government knowing about it.”

    I DO consider it an essential liberty that i be able to order a pizza without the government knowing about it. I can’t even begin to explain how strongly I feel about this. IT’S NONE OF THEIR FUCKING BUSINESS!

  15. Freedom is largely illusory, any way. Power is the thing. Nick has managed to be a big fish in an exccedingly small pond. Don’t be fooled by his prating on about freedom. It’s part of his gig. Your part, faithful psoters, is to keep the faith.

  16. Uh, I wanna order a pizza to go … and no anchovies.

  17. No anchovies? You’ve got the wrong man. I spell my name … DANGER!

  18. To my nay-sayers,

    I understand the points you make. I’m not thrilled that they’re doing this, and I think it’s a giant waste of time and resources anyway. The question is wether ordering a Pizza without the government knowing about it is an essential liberty.

    And I know about the “frog” story, I call it “creepism” or “incrementalism”, and I see it all the time (especially, for example, against the second amendment) – and yes, it bothers me.

    However: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

    Does the government having these records: make you insecure in your personal being? Your house? Your papers? Your effects?

    Perhaps it’s time we had an amendment that clarifies what “papers and effects” means, the same way we need an amendment that clarrifies that “public use” actually means, you know, public USE.

    What I’m saying isn’t that it’s not a bad thing, it’s that no essential liberties are being lost. Moreover, there is no security being gained, either.

    Now, if they were recording my calls, I’d be with you on this one. The content of my communications are as good as “papers”, which is partly how I read the 4th. But the fact that I made the call was never “private”, as it involved at least one third party anyway.

  19. Evan wrote: Today, it’s tapping your phone calls. Tomorrow, it’s installing video cameras in your homes. And why not? Who gets to decide whether video cameras in your living room constitutes giving up an “essential” liberty? I’m sure that most of the same fools who support the NSA wiretapping would also be okay with the government installing video cameras in their house—after all, it’s in the interest of national security!

    The 4th amendment specifically protects you in your house… that’s the difference. Being secure in your home is a guaranteed right, unlike freedom from someone knowing you made a phone call to someone else.

  20. The Washington Post poll – what gives? 502 respondents! That is not even close to statistically significant. A poll with this sample size doesn’t deserve a headline – it doesn’t even deserve to be published. Yet, I haven’t read any serious criticism of it. So what’s the story? Is this just old-fashioned sensationalism meant to attract readers – coming at the expense of what should be a serious public debate – or is the Post taking sides? Please tell me why anyone is taking this garbage poll seriously.

  21. The stupid reality of the situation is that the NSA won’t be able to do anything useful with all that info. The intelligence agencies in this country have been unable to do much of anything against terrorists with sweeping information searches: all of their reputed victories (stopping a plot against the LA Library Tower coming from The Philippines, the Lodi Pakistani, the black militants in LA, the training camps in upstate NY and in OR) all came from human intelligence.

    All these mega-searches do allow them to proceed with buisiness as usual and continue using Cold War techniques of communication interception, satelite intelligence, and technological superiority to inflate budgets, justify promotions, and ensure their indisposability. Oh, and tread on the Bill of Rights. Let’s not forget that people in power are there because they like to enforce the rules but not follow them.

  22. What’s particularly irksome is how legalistic the defenses of these practices have been. At no point has there been an acknowledgment that such activities are bad public policy and set a bad precedent, even if they can be folded and mutilated into some sort of “legal” formulation. Honestly, if we made an effort to comply with all of the Constitutional protections, would we really be at any greater risk? Even if we were, what the heck is all the talk about protecting our freedoms about, anyway?

    This holds true for these crazy assertions of national security that are used to block suits against the government. Now, let me just guess that the government will always attempt to restrict access to such information when it’s facing liability and/or embarrassment. If the courts can’t hold the executive branch accountable, exactly who can? I can’t until my army of flying robots is complete 🙂

  23. The question itself is biased. This wasn’t a matter of investigating terrorist threats. If they had presented this as being what it is, the government making records that they knew had nothing to do with terrorism, the numbers would have been much lower.

  24. Following the Bush administration’s logic on this, would there be any legal resource if Bush had used these records to trace, say, Joe Wilson’s phone records, and then leak any embarassing contacts?
    Is there any legal recourse he would have if Bush tapped and recorded the content, and secretly leaking anything embarassing?

    As far as I can tell, if Bush claims it is in the national security interest, they believe he has the inherent power to do pretty much anything. Is that not there assertion?

  25. Why can’t you just trust your god-fearing president? America is one nation under God. It even says so on out money. If we’re obedient to the will of God and don’t let homosexuals marry or take guns out of the hands of law-abiding Americans, all will be well with us. Right now we’re threatened by the non-Christians who run Hollywood more than by Al-Qaeda. Muslims want to destroy our bodies, but some other non-Christians want to enslave our souls. They own the banks and control international finance. They may even have got us to attack Iraq.

  26. Jeb,
    Will you be our next President?
    Are you aware changing one letter in your name could be your ball and chain?

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