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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Continuing the Surveillance State

Sea of cell phones

A Pew poll out yesterday has some calling Democratic voters hypocrites on the subject of the surveillance state. In 2006, only 37% answered that NSA surveillance was "acceptable." Today, that number is 64%. The accusation is that Democrats were against it under Bush, but are now for it under Obama. And there's a measure of truth to the charge. When broken down as Democrat, Republican, and Independent, dem voters are the most accepting of NSA snooping under President Obama, by more than ten points. But Democrats can be excused for some of those numbers by the wording of the questions.

In 2006, respondents were asked, "The NSA has been investigating people suspected of terrorism by secretly listening in on phone calls and reading emails without court approval..." The 2013 question is, "NSA has been getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism..." The first asks if you approve of something that is a crime, while the second asks your opinion of something that's not a crime. Independents follow Democrats on this -- though not in the same numbers -- with 55% rejecting illegal wiretaps and 53% accepting the NSA's collection of metadata, where (we're assured) no one listened to the content of the calls. These are, in fact, two very different questions; it should come as no surprise that people gave two very different answers.

Unfortunately, that defense falls apart on another question: "Should the gov't be able to monitor emails if it might prevent future terrorist attacks?" In 2002, 51% of Democrats said no. Today, 53% say yes. Republicans also flip on support, so they're not getting off the hook. But the bright spot in this one is Independents. In 2002, indies were closely divided on email interception -- 45% pro, 49% anti. Today, they are overwhelmingly opposed -- 38% pro, 60% anti.


So the numbers are moving in the right direction, despite partisan hypocrisy. Unfortunately, that movement is not enough to end the program any time soon. With solid majorities supporting the PRISM program as it is, it seems unlikely that we'll see any real changes to it. Pew reports their poll "finds 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."

And in Washington, it's difficult to find someone opposed to the program. Writing for The Week, Jon Terbush reports:

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.
We used to make jokes about all the phones in the Soviet Union being bugged, now we're fine with a similar situation here. I find this crushingly depressing. Steve Benen observes that "the American mainstream is far less concerned with federal surveillance programs than civil libertarians had hoped. Indeed, the Post/Pew poll found that 45% of the public -- very nearly half -- believe the government should be able to go even further than it currently is when it comes to spying on Americans, so long as the goal is to prevent terrorism."

"And with results like these," he concludes, "the political appetite for changing the law will likely be non-existent."

That's a pity, because this law would be more at home in the old Soviet Union than in the United States of today. America deserves better -- if only Americans would realize this and demand better.


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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