Americans split on feds listening in

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

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."

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."

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."

Cutting the president some slack

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.

Undecided in the Midwest

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.

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