Thanks to NSA Surveillance, Americans Are More Worried About Civil Liberties Than Terrorism


Senate Judiciary Committee

Last week's narrow House vote against the Amash Amendment, which was aimed at stopping the National Security Agency's mass collection of Americans' phone records, reflects a narrow split among the general public. The vote was 217 to 205, meaning that 49 percent of the legislators who participated wanted to end the program, while 51 percent wanted it to continue. Similarly, the latest Pew Research Center survey, conducted over the weekend, found that 44 percent of Americans oppose "the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts," while 50 percent support it; the rest were undecided or declined to answer. A month ago in the same survey, 48 percent were in favor and 47 percent were opposed. While that shift suggests a slight increase in support for NSA surveillance, the new survey also found that 47 percent of Americans worry that counterterrorism policies "have gone too far in restricting civil liberties," compared to 35 percent who worry that they "have not gone far enough to protect the country." According to Pew, "This is the first time in Pew Research polling that more have expressed concern over civil liberties than protection from terrorism since the question was first asked in 2004."

It is no wonder that concern about civil liberties is rising when you consider some of the other opinions endorsed by respondents. For instance, 56 percent said the federal courts "do not provide adequate limits on what government can collect"; 70 percent said "the government uses [these] data for purposes other than terrorism investigations"; 63 percent thought the government is reading email and listening to calls, rather than just looking at metadata; and 56 percent said "the government keeps too much information about its anti-terrorism programs secret from the public." Given the level of distrust reflected in these numbers, it is surprising that half the respondents still expressed overall support for "collection of telephone and internet data" in the name of fighting terrorism.

There was a sadly predictable partisan split in opinions about government encroachment on privacy, with 57 percent of Democrats supporting the surveillance programs, compared to just 44 percent of Republicans. Notably, Democrats in the House were less blindly loyal to President Obama in the vote on the Amash Amendment: 57 percent of those who voted supported the amendment, compared to 41 percent of Republicans, essentially the reverse of the pattern seen in the Pew poll.

Although the most recent Pew survey did not ask specifically about the indiscriminate collection of telephone metadata, a month ago 56 percent of respondents said they were OK with "secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism," while 41 percent disapproved. I suspect the latter group will grow as it becomes clear that the government has greatly exaggerated the usefulness of the phone-record database in preventing terrorist attacks. "I have not seen any indication that the bulk phone records program yielded any unique intelligence that was not also available to the government through less intrusive means," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore), said in a speech last week. "If this program is not effective," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said at a hearing yesterday, " it has to end. So far, I'm not convinced by what I've seen." He said Obama administration officials has shown him a classified list of "terrorist events" supposedly prevented by NSA surveillance, and it did not support claims that "dozens or even several terrorist plots" had been thwarted thanks to the phone record dragnet. The New York Times notes that the 54 successes intelligence officials originally attributed partly to the database have become 13 investigations to which the database "contributed." That phrasing leaves open the possibility that the database was not actually necessary, especially since the same information could have been obtained through court orders aimed at particular targets.

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  1. I’m more worried about the feds taking a third of my money every two weeks and driving the country to economic ruin. That happens all the time. There have been a handful of terrorist attacks, spaced years apart, and while it’s tragic that the feds missed the obvious warning signs to prevent them and innocent people lost their lives, the odds of one affecting me in any way seem pretty low.

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  2. Seriously, what’s the bigger threat to an American citizen? A terrorist or our own government? It’s not even close to several orders of magnitude.

    1. Well, terrorism is like being killed by a piano falling out of a window onto the sidewalk, as compared to our government, which is like having a piece of uranium hidden in your mattress.

      1. Well said BOTH of you.

      2. More like terrorism is the piano, but government is like trying to live on 1000 calories per day. You can do it, but you will have many other problems as a result.

    2. Our rulers are a bunch of terrorists who make the rest of the world’s terrorists look like a bunch of amateurs.

  3. I would like to see a chart for “lives lost due to terrorist attacks” superimposed on a chart for “lives lost due to US Government.”

    Yeah, that chart would tell a very interesting story.

    1. or lightning

      1. ok, well maybe not lightning, that’s a really low amount.

        1. “Taking these figures into account, a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.” – https://reason.com/archives/201…..ism-should

    2. Or lives lost to falling in the bathroom.

  4. 44 percent of Americans oppose “the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts,” while 50 percent support it; the rest were undecided or declined to answer.

    Probably smart if you’re responding over the phone or internet.

    1. No sense incriminating one’s self under some badly mistaken belief that speech, especially political speech, is tolerated or legal in the USA.

  5. about fucking time.

  6. I appreciate your attempt to “look at the bright side” Jacob, but after seeing that they overwhelmingly understand what is going on and still a majority support it I am left feeling–like–DOOOOOMMM!!!!

    Sorry, not feeling the optimism on this one.

  7. It’s a lot easier for people to say they think the government is curtailing too many civil liberties in the name of preventing terrorism or that they don’t trust the Feds to use info for the expressed purposes than it is to get into specifics and talk about which programs are the problem. That’s why you see the numbers go down when you phrase it in a more broad sense. It’s just like partisan “conservatives” on spending: want less spending, can’t name a damn thing to cut. People love their slogans but when you get down to it the government is very effective in selling us each individual program. We allow the increase because we expect it to be a giant cock ramming up our ass and we don’t realize you can’t have proper anal sex without lube.

    1. [blah blah blah] … or that they don’t trust the Feds to use info for the expressed purposes than it is to get into specifics and talk about which programs are the problem.

      That’s because they’re all the problem.

    2. I agree with the sentiment that all conversations about government should be framed as descriptions of unwelcome anal intercourse.

  8. I expect support to drop once people start hearing more about XKeyscore, which, from what I can tell, was just publicized by the the Guardian. I’m surprised Reason hasn’t had an article focusing on it specifically today (or maybe I missed something).

  9. With a lot of good luck the Amashites will be the wave of the future in America. These next few years are critical as far as anything resembling liberty are concerned.

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  11. It was one thing for Snowden to make the public statements as to the abilities of government analysts and civilian subcontractors to gather and peruse the internet activities and emails of Americans. I can see a lot of folks saying to themselves at that time that maybe Snowden was just talking a bunch of shit. But now that they’ve been exposed to the specific program and capabilities being employed by Uncle Sam, I just don’t understand why the American people as a whole aren’t now totally outraged at their government and demanding heads on a platter.

  12. Oh, I should probably mention it is not so much the technical abilities Uncle Sam now has to gather data that should be so alarming but the fact that these abilities are being so universally applied to all Americans.

    Bluntly stated; Uncle Sam is using the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the principles under which the United States was founded to wipe his keister.

  13. I don’t mind the NSA collecting copious amounts of personal data, but investigators should be required to have a warrant before accessing the stash. The idea that contractors can just surf the NSA’s stores of personal information without any sort of a paper-trail to trace their inquiries is a little unsettling.

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  15. The NSA, like most of the Obama admin is totally corrupt and should be cut way back

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