Most Americans supportive of government phone tracking, poll shows

By David Lauter/Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — News that the government has amassed records on nearly all telephone calls in the United States for at least seven years and has the ability to tap into Internet traffic has generated little reaction from the public so far, according to new polling data released Monday.

By almost 2-1, Americans put a higher priority on investigating “possible terrorist threats” than “not to intrude on personal privacy.” And a majority supports the ability of the government to get court orders to “track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism.” The public divides more closely on the question of government monitoring of email and other Internet activities, the poll showed.

The poll, done by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post, shows little change in overall public opinion on the topic since the George W. Bush administration. But there is one significant shift — with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans have become more critical of the government’s powers and Democrats more likely to support them.

Asked if it is more important “for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy” or for the government “not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats,” 62 percent put the priority on investigating, while 34 percent sided with privacy. Younger Americans were more likely to favor privacy, but even those younger than 30 favored investigation, by 51 percent to 45 percent.

The overall level of support for making investigation the priority has changed little since 2006, when 65 percent of Americans in a Washington Post/ABC News poll expressed that view.

Asked about specific National Security Agency programs that have come to light in the past week, Americans by 56 percent to 41 percent said they found it “acceptable” that the spy agency was “getting secret court orders to track phone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” The poll found little age gap on that question.

The prospect that the government might be “able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks” drew more objections.

Officials say their actual activities are more restrained than that description. The government’s Internet monitoring program that was exposed last week, code-named PRISM, is supposed to monitor the Internet activities only of foreigners who are not in the country and, even then, only when specific threats exist, national security officials claim.

But even the broader wording used in the poll was deemed “acceptable” by 45 percent of those surveyed, compared with 52 percent who found it “unacceptable.”

Republicans by 51 percent to 45 percent said they found the broad description of email monitoring “unacceptable.” Independents were even more likely to be opposed, 60 percent to 31 percent. But Democrats went the other way, with 53 percent saying it would be acceptable, and 43 percent objecting. That marked a turnaround from the Bush years. A similar question about monitoring of email in 2002 found Republicans in favor, 53 percent to 38 percent, while Democrats opposed, 41 percent to 51 percent.

Similarly, on the NSA’s telephone monitoring, Democrats by 64 percent to 34 percent were accepting of the practice, while Republicans divided more closely, 52 percent to 47 percent. During the Bush administration, Republicans overwhelmingly approved when asked a similarly worded question, 75 percent to 23 percent while Democrats opposed, 37 percent to 61 percent.

The survey also showed that about one-quarter of those surveyed said they were paying “very close” attention to news about the government monitoring programs — a relatively modest level. As is often the case, older Americans and political partisans were more likely to be paying attention, with Republicans following the story more closely than Democrats.

The poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday, interviewed 1,004 Americans aged 18 or older. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.