Americans say they are pretty comfortable with expanded government surveillance

The new polling from Pew suggests that the latest leaks aren't likely to change policy.

Patrick Semansky/AP
National Security Agency plaques are seen at the compound at Fort Meade, Md., June 6. An extensive government surveillance program involving the NSA found that a large number of Americans are comfortable with trading privacy for security, a new Pew poll suggests.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted from June 6 to 9, prompted by revelations of an extensive domestic surveillance program involving the National Security Agency found that a large number of US citizens are comfortable with trading privacy for security.

The poll found that 56 percent of Americans considered it "acceptable" for the NSA to get "secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism," while 41 percent of those surveyed found this "not acceptable."

This was the first time Pew had asked that specific question. It has asked the question "should the government be able to monitor everyone's e-mail to prevent possible terrorism" for a number of years. For that proposition there is less support, perhaps because it doesn't include any judicial oversight. In 2002, 45 percent said they supported e-mail monitoring, while 47 percent said they didn't support that. In June 2013, 45 percent still indicated they supported e-mail monitoring, but the number of Americans opposed to it rose to 52 percent.

The overall picture is still one in which large numbers of Americans are deeply frightened by terrorism and want the government to devote significant resources to combat it, notwithstanding the fact that terrorism is not much of an actual threat. On balance, most people polled indicated security is more important to them than privacy, which is the reason that expanded surveillance powers and the use of secret courts have been so popular among lawmakers.

Pew writes:

Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

These opinions have changed little since an ABC News/Washington Post survey in January 2006. Currently, there are only modest partisan differences in these opinions: 69% of Democrats say it is more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats, even at the expense of personal privacy, as do 62% of Republicans and 59% of independents.

The polling did find a meaningful gap between older and younger Americans on this issue, with older Americans being less concerned about privacy.

"While six-in-10 or more in older age groups say it is more important to investigate terrorism even if it intrudes on privacy, young people are divided: 51% say investigating terrorism is more important while 45% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible threats," Pew writes.

While the poll finds bipartisan support for surveillance, the way the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans have shifted on the issue since President Obama took office is once again evidence of the power of partisanship, rather than principle, in how voters see the world. For instance; the number of Democrats who say they think invading Iraq was the right choice has surged since Obama took office, and the number of Republican's who think it was a smart choice has plummeted.

The Pew poll found that in January 2006, 75 percent of Republicans found NSA surveillance programs "acceptable," while 61 percent of Democrats found them "unacceptable." In this June 2013 poll, Republican support dropped to 52 percent while Democrat support surged, to 64 percent now finding the surveillance programs acceptable.

While it's natural that Republicans would trust a Republican president more (and vice versa), expanded powers for the federal government don't expire at the end of each president's term. Still, even when it comes to fundamental questions about the trade-offs between privacy and security, a large portion of the electorate, like the politicians that lead them, don't look beyond the election cycle.

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