Poll: Support Seen for Patriot Act


June 9, 2005 -- -- Against a backdrop of heightened public concern about government intrusions, six in 10 Americans favor extending the Patriot Act, but majorities oppose expanding it by adding new FBI powers to issue subpoenas and access U.S. mail.

Fifty-nine percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll favor continuing the additional investigative authority in terrorism investigations that was granted to the FBI starting in 2001. President Bush urged such an extension of the Patriot Act today.

But there are some compunctions behind that support: Just half the public now says the United States government is doing enough to protect the rights of Americans citizens as it conducts the war on terrorism, down from 61 percent to 74 percent in polls in 2002 and 2003. That's not unexpected; most Americans in the past have accepted possible privacy intrusions at times of national crisis -- but not on an unlimited or permanent basis. As the immediacy of the sense of crisis wanes, interest in privacy rights can reassert itself.

Higher concern about privacy relates to opposition to two expansions of the Patriot Act approved Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sixty-eight percent oppose allowing the FBI to demand records without first getting a judge or prosecutor's approval, and 54 percent oppose requiring the Postal Service to let FBI agents copy information from the outside of envelopes in the mail.

Another concern about rights involves treatment of prisoners at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Sixty percent of Americans express confidence that the United States is adequately protecting the rights of those prisoners -- but many fewer, just 23 percent, are "very" confident about it. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., this week suggested closing Guantanamo, and Bush yesterday did not rule it out, saying the administration is exploring alternatives.

Extending the Patriot Act gets broad support from Republicans and a narrow majority of independents, but it's opposed by just over half of Democrats. While six in 10 Republicans want the bill expanded to allow the FBI to copy the outside of envelopes sent through U.S. mail, six in 10 Democrats and independents oppose the move.

Majorities regardless of party affiliation oppose letting the FBI demand records without prior judicial approval.

There are similar ideological divisions on extending and expanding the Patriot Act, with conservatives most likely to support continuing and augmenting the law.

Concerns about government intrusions are strongly related to views on extending the Patriot Act or expanding its terms. Among the 50 percent who think the government is doing enough now to protect privacy rights, 76 percent favor extending the act. But among the other half, who think rights are not being protected adequately, support for extending the law drops to 42 percent. These people also are much less apt to support expanding FBI authority with new provisions in the law.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 2-5, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.