Poll: Broader Concern on Privacy Rights, But Terrorism Threat Still Trumps

Three in 10 Americans believe the federal government has made unjustified intrusions into personal privacy as it investigates terrorism. That's nearly double the level of concern shown a few years ago, but it's still far from a majority view.

More broadly, the public still grants investigating terrorism a higher priority than guarding privacy rights, but by somewhat less of a margin than in the past. And Americans divide about evenly on the specific issue of warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency: Fifty-one percent call them acceptable in investigating terrorism, 47 percent unacceptable -- views that are marked by huge partisan and ideological gaps.

Separately, this ABC News/Washington Post poll finds George W. Bush's overall job rating unchanged after a gain following the Iraqi elections last month. Forty-six percent of Americans approve of his work in office, while 52 percent disapprove. That's almost identical to the mid-December rating, but better than his low approval rating (39 percent) last fall.

The war in Iraq continues to weigh on Bush -- 55 percent say it was not worth fighting, a view that's maintained by a majority in polls since December 2004. And a tepid 53 percent approve of the way Bush has handled the U.S. campaign against terrorism, long the key to his support and indeed to his re-election in 2004.

PRIVACY -- Results in this survey indicate some shifts in the tug-of-war between investigating terrorism and protecting privacy. While still heavily outnumbered, those who call privacy a greater concern have increased from 21 percent in September 2003 to 32 percent now. And as noted, the number of Americans who believe the government is intruding on privacy without justification has risen from 17 percent to 30 percent.

That said, security concerns still trump: Sixty-five percent say it's more important for the government to investigate terrorism than for it to protect privacy (down, though, from a high of 79 percent in June 2002). Despite the NSA revelations, as many say they're worried that Bush will not do enough to investigate terrorism (48 percent) as are worried that he'll go too far in compromising constitutional rights (44 percent).

These results don't mean Americans don't value their privacy or constitutional rights; they suggest instead that most see security as a competing right -- one that, since Sept. 11, 2001, has commanded considerable clout.

As things stand, Americans by 48 percent say that as the government investigates terrorism it is doing enough, rather than not enough, to protect the rights of American citizens (8 percent say it's doing too much). The divisions are about the same when it comes to the rights of people suspected of terrorist involvement.

PARTISAN -- Some of these issues engender sharp ideological and partisan differences, with Republicans and conservatives more concerned about terrorism than about privacy rights, and Democrats and liberals, in particular, in the opposite camp.

Republicans by 84 percent percent say it's more important right now to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on privacy, than not to intrude on privacy if that limits the ability to investigate possible terrorist acts. Most independents agree, but by a 2-1 margin rather than the Republicans' nearly 6-1 margin. Democrats divide about evenly. The divisions among conservatives, moderates and liberals are similar.

More Important Right Now
  Investigate terrorism Protect privacy
All 65% 32%
Democrats 51% 47%
Independents 64% 34%
Republicans 84% 15%
Liberals 49% 49%
Moderates 65% 33%
Conservatives 76% 21%

In another difference, Republicans and conservatives, given their support for the administration, are much less likely to say the government is intruding on privacy rights; or, if they believe it's doing so, to see such intrusions as unjustified.

Is the Government Intruding on Privacy Rights?
  Yes, and not justified Yes, but justified No, not intruding
All 30% 31% 32%
Democrats 45% 25% 25%
Independents 33% 31% 27%
Republicans 8% 41% 45%
Liberals 49% 25% 20%
Moderates 49% 25% 20%
Conservatives 15% 30% 48%


This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 5-8, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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