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Americans split on feds listening in

Half of Americans say Bush has the right to OK the secret program.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2005


Marilyn Acosta, a Boeing employee from Los Angeles, has a message for President Bush: "If he wants to listen in to my calls, it's OK. I'm all for it."

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Not so fast, says Rosey Bystrak, who works for an architectural firm in San Diego. "Bush thinks he's a king and not a president, so it doesn't surprise me," she says, referring to the recent revelation that after 9/11, the president authorized the interception of communications between the US and other countries without a judge's approval.

These two women, speaking to a reporter in San Diego's Balboa Park, encompass the range of views on the issue and reflect the nearly even divide in public opinion found in the first survey that directly addresses the controversial program. The online Zogby Interactive poll, taken Dec. 20-21, found that nearly half of likely voters, 49 percent, say Bush has the constitutional powers to approve such a plan, while 45 percent say he does not.

The inclusion of the president in the question appears key, says John Zogby, the pollster. When Bush becomes part of the equation in polling, political polarization comes to the fore. "Since the president is at the core of the issue, we felt it legitimated the question by putting his name in there," Mr. Zogby says. In fact, he believes the Dec. 16 revelation of the National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping program contributed to Bush's bounce in the polls this month, particularly by bringing some wayward Republicans back to his side.

"When you put the president and 9/11 and the war on terror together with NSA eavesdropping, you get great support among Republicans," he says. "It has become a wedge issue."

Two in three say civil liberties are key

By other measures, American concerns about the proper balancing of civil liberties with national security have increased since the early post-9/11 period. Gallup, which regularly polls on civil liberties, found four months after the terror attacks that nearly half of Americans believed it was OK to violate basic civil liberties in the name of battling terrorism. But by September 2002, the numbers had shifted to where they are today. By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans believe the government should take steps to prevent terrorism, but not at the expense of civil liberties.

"It could reflect the return of people's traditional skepticism of federal power," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute, who says other surveys show the same trend. "Or perhaps as memories of 9/11 recede, they could just be thinking the government is going too far."

The debate over the future of the antiterror Patriot Act also reflects growing unease on the part of some Americans - including senators, both Republican and Democrat - over how individual rights are handled during wartime. When Congress reconvenes in January, both issues will return to the foreground. But it is the newly revealed eavesdropping program that has captured more public attention of late. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to have hearings as soon as it finishes Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito.

Americans, meanwhile, are sorting through the eavesdropping question. Back at Balboa Park in San Diego, physician Franco Spano says he's having trouble figuring out where the truth really lies. "You hear the sound bites from both sides, but you need an objective source to really comment on it." Still, he says, "I'm suspicious," adding that sometimes "people's rights are taken away slowly ... purportedly, for a good reason."

Retired construction worker Robert Hobbs comes down on the president's side. "We have to stop terrorists when they start talking about doing something," Mr. Hobbs says from his wheelchair in the park, watching dogs run in a canine-friendly grassy area. "You need to get them then. You can't wait for a court order."