May 12, 2006 — -- Americans by nearly a 2-1 ratio call the surveillance of telephone records an acceptable way for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, expressing broad unconcern even if their own calling patterns are scrutinized.
Lending support to the administration's defense of its anti-terrorism intelligence efforts, 63 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the secret program, disclosed Thursday by USA Today, is justified, while far fewer, 35 percent, call it unjustified.
Indeed, 51 percent approve of the way President Bush is handling the protection of privacy rights, while 47 percent disapprove -- hardly a robust rating, but one that's far better than his overall job approval, in the low 30s in recent polls.
This doesn't mean privacy intrusions aren't a concern. Nearly half the public, 45 percent, say the government is not doing enough to protect Americans' rights as it investigates terrorism. This concern is far higher than it was in 2002 and 2003, closer to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- but slightly down in this poll from its level two months ago.
Despite such concerns, however, the public continues to place a higher priority on terrorism investigations than on privacy intrusions. Sixty-five percent say it's more important for the government to investigate possible threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy, than for it to avoid privacy intrusions if that limits its investigative ability. It was the same in January, although higher still in 2002 and 2003 polls.
The phone-records program, moreover, is not broadly seen as intrusive. Two-thirds of Americans say it wouldn't bother them if the National Security Agency had a record of phone numbers that they had called. A third would be bothered; fewer, about a quarter, say it would bother them a lot.
The intensity of sentiment on this issue is in the administration's favor as well: Substantially more people, 41 percent, feel "strongly" that the program is acceptable than the number who feel strongly that it's unacceptable, 24 percent.
The public previously has come down on the government's side on NSA surveillance. A previously disclosed NSA program of wiretapping targeted phone calls and e-mails between the United States and international destinations has been rated acceptable by more than half of Americans in ABC/Post polls this year, including 54 percent in March.
At the same time most don't endorse criticism of the media for disclosing the secret NSA program. Fifty-six percent say disclosing the program was right for the news media to have done; 42 percent call it wrong.
PARTY/IDEOLOGY -- There are partisan differences in views on the program: Eighty-five percent of Republicans call it acceptable, compared with 45 percent of Democrats. Crucially for the administration, six in 10 independents say the program passes muster.
Similarly, eight in 10 conservatives call the NSA program acceptable. Six in 10 moderates agree, as do more than four in 10 liberals.
There are even sharper differences among these groups in ratings of Bush's and the government's performance in protecting privacy. On both of these, independents and moderates are somewhat more skeptical. However, six in 10 independents and half of Democrats also say that investigating threats currently is more important than protecting privacy; among Republicans, that jumps to 84 percent.
Some of these differences also are reflected in sensitivity about personal records. Just 12 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of conservatives say it would bother them to learn that the NSA had records of their calls. That rises to about four in 10 independents and moderates -- and half of Democrats and liberals.
Republicans and conservatives are much more critical of the media's disclosure of the program -- nearly six in 10 say it was wrong, while, among other Americans, six in 10 or more call it the right thing to do.
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For previous poll results, click here