Americans split on feds listening in
Half of Americans say Bush has the right to OK the secret program.
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He isn't concerned about having his phone tapped. "I'm not going to terrorize anyone," he says. "If you aren't going to do anything, you don't have anything to worry about."Skip to next paragraph
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For some Americans, the issue is cloudy enough for them to give the president the benefit of the doubt. That's the case with Bruce Garrison, a resident of Ossining, N.Y. "It seems like it's one of those unfortunate borderlands where the interest of national security and the rights to privacy collide," he says. But "I am not convinced the president is overstepping his grounds, constitutionally speaking."
Tom Friedrich of Elmira, N.Y., believes the whole affair is overblown, the result of a lot of "Monday morning" quarterbacking. "If there had been another attack, Bush's critics would be asking why he didn't use every means at his disposal to stop an attack. There hasn't been, which can only be interpreted as his approach to terrorism being successful. So, he's criticized for being too aggressive. I'd like to hear Bush's critics identify which innocent civilians should have been sacrificed, so that nobody has to worry about telephone calls to Tehran being overheard."
But to Melissa Kirk of New York City, the spying is wrong - and not just because she's a Democrat: "I can understand the need to protect the public, but if it's done on the basis of fear or gut reaction, not involving the courts, then more often than not someone's rights get trampled. It's a slippery slope. It's important to prevent a tragedy, but by following the Constitution, we are protecting the nation."
In Garner, N.C., Michael Akins will give his name, but won't let a reporter take his picture. Mr. Akins worries a newspaper picture with his anti-administration opinions next to it would spark interest from federal agents. "They'd be tapping my phone. I'm serious," he says.
Akins admits that a growing distrust of politicians and cynicism about the news media clearly color his opinions and, added to what he calls the impossibility of privacy "since the Internet hit," he's convinced that what little privacy is left is worth fighting for.
"[Federal agents] are already doing more than anybody even knows, so if we appear to let them do whatever they want to do, it's only going to get worse," he says.
In Chicago, many of those interviewed at the end of the long holiday weekend declined to express their opinions. Some said they didn't know the facts well enough; others weren't sure how to weigh privacy concerns against the chance of disrupting terrorist attacks. But while the undecided outnumbered the opinionated, opponents of the surveillance outnumbered supporters.
Graduate student Sam Goffman questioned the usefulness of the intelligence gathered through the wiretaps and worried about America's reputation. "In the long run, it will drive people away," he says. "It will increase hostility towards this country."
At Chicago's Intelligentsia coffee shop, Bonnie Angel says surveillance without a warrant could be justified if the government had good reason to suspect someone of involvement in terrorism. "Sometimes it's justified without a warrant," says Ms. Angel. "If you put too many strangleholds on [the government] they can't do their job. And the 'bad guys' know they can't do their job and take full advantage of it."
Angel was in Chicago for the day after driving her daughter back from a holiday weekend in Warrensburg, Ill., where terrorism and counterterrorism are not on most people's list of personal worries.
"We live in a town of 1,400 in central Illinois," she says. "You tend to think it doesn't affect you."
• Monitor staffers Ron Scherer (New York) and Patrik Jonsson (Raleigh, N.C.), correspondent Randy Dotinga (San Diego), and contributor Charles Crain (Chicago) contributed to this report.