How do Americans feel about NSA surveillance? Ambivalent

When terrorists strike, intelligence agencies are faulted for failure to 'connect the dots.' If that's what the NSA is trying to do with its mass surveillance of phone records and Internet use, how do Americans feel about that?

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama gestures at a press conference Friday in San Jose, Calif. Speaking about the NSA collecting phone records, the president said "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," just numbers and duration.

Every time foreign-influenced attackers successfully strike the United States – the mass shooting at Ft. Hood, the Boston Marathon bombing – government agencies are faulted for failure to “connect the dots.”

Why weren’t US Army Maj. Nidal Hasan’s e-mail contacts with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (the American-born imam later killed in a US drone attack in Yemen) seen as reason enough to possibly head off Hasan’s killing 13 people at the Army post in Texas?

Why weren’t the Tsarnaev brothers’ possible links to radical Islam – including older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to Russia, where he spent considerable time in the Islamic republics of Chechnya and Dagestan – enough to tip off the FBI to investigate further? Shortly after that trip, Tamerlan began posting YouTube videos exhorting jihad.

Connecting the dots is exactly what the National Security Agency says it’s trying to do with the now-revealed programs vacuuming up billions of bits of “meta-data” on telephone calls and Internet use.

How do Americans feel about this?

With the latest revelations just days – in some cases, hours – old, it’s too soon to know for sure.

But since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the public has been generally supportive of national security efforts – sometimes finding those more important than any concern about privacy and other things dear to civil liberties advocates.

“Voters give government leeway to snoop” reads the headline on James Hohmann’s piece on

“Privacy is sort of like the deficit: In the abstract, voters rate it a serious concern,” Mr. Hohmann writes. “But drill down, and they don’t want to cut the entitlements that balloon federal spending – or end programs that have prevented terrorist attacks. Especially if Americans don’t believe their own computers and phones are being monitored, they are willing to give the government a long leash.”

 A Pew Research survey in 2011 found that only 29 percent favored “the U.S. government monitoring personal telephone calls and emails” in order to curb terrorism. But Pew found in another poll that 47 percent are more concerned government policies “have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country,” while only 32 percent said they were more concerned the government has gone “too far.”

“I wouldn’t want to minimize the concern over privacy at all because it’s definitely there. But at the same time, especially in the wake of Boston and the constant threat people are feeling … protection is foremost,” Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, told Politico. “In this general tradeoff, when push comes to shove … more people consistently since 9/11 said protecting the country is a greater concern than restricting civil liberties.”

John Dickerson at Slate takes a similar line, headlining his piece “Why Americans Don’t Fear the NSA.”

“Polls suggest that people often support measures to catch terrorists that infringe on civil liberties,” he writes. “In a New York Times/CBS poll taken after the Boston Marathon bombing, 78 percent of people said surveillance cameras were a good idea. A CNN poll taken a month later showed the same support for cameras….”

But there’s a big caveat here: People were asked in the recent CNN poll if they would allow "expanded government monitoring of cell phones and email to intercept communications" to catch suspected terrorists. Fifty-nine percent said no.

Similar polls back in 2006 (when similar revelations about the NSA were emerging), got pretty much the same results. Phone surveillance targeting specific individuals or groups was OK; anything seen as a fishing expedition netting vast amounts of data – including from the unwary and innocent – was not.

What’s changed since then?

A vast expansion in social media, plus much wider use of e-mail and Internet searches – the kind of thing the NSA now has under constant surveillance.

These days, too, distrust of government may be wider and deeper – from tea party activism to current Obama administration “scandals” involving Benghazi, IRS shenanigans, and secretly obtaining the phone records of Associated Press and Fox News journalists.

"It's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," President Obama said the other day. "I think the American people understand that there are some trade-offs involved.”

Just where the balance of those trade-offs now sits will be important as officials and lawmakers work their way through today’s revelations about government surveillance.

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