Monday, May 15, 2006

Another NSA poll

You won't see me dealing with polls much here, simply because they are too inconsequential, meaningless, and subject to change.

But since much has been made of last week's poll apparently showing 2-1 support for the NSA phone database, I thought I'd mention this one.

A majority of Americans disapprove of a massive Pentagon database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public.

The survey of 809 adults Friday and Saturday shows a nation wrestling with the balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties.

By 51%-43%, those polled disapprove of the program, disclosed Thursday in USA TODAY. The National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from three of the nation's largest telecommunication companies since soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The discussion on this topic has just begun, so neither of these polls are gospel. But it's worth noting that this poll had double the sample size (and thus a smaller margin of error) than the earlier poll, and comes after people had had several days to read and think about the NSA program.

Also worth noting is this:

Most of those who approve of the program say it violates some civil liberties but is acceptable because "investigating terrorism is the more important goal."

So a strong majority thinks it violates civil liberties; it's just that a sizable minority think the trade-off is worth it.

I don't, obviously, for reasons I've outlined before. But I will be heartened if the discussion on these sorts of programs moves away from simplistic assertions like "security is paramount" and weak justifications like "it's not clearly illegal", and toward the broader question of "exactly what sort of infringements on civil liberties are we willing to tolerate in pursuit of physical safety?" And that, of course, begs for the follow up question: "are all these infringements touted as 'necessary' really necessary, or are there less-intrusive ways to protect us?"

And finally, the big question: "when push comes to shove, do Americans have the courage that it takes to live in a free society?"

I do. I hope a strong majority in this country do, too.

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Blogger Lola said...

I appreciate your discussion on this topic and you raise some good questions. However, I am part of that "sizeable majority" that feels a violation of my privacy is worth the trade-off for my safety. I realize we live in a world and a country where we have to take measures to protect our safety while maintaining our freedoms. We can no longer live freely because we do have people in this country who want to kill us simply for the way we live. And I feel you are asking Americans to consider no longer being "free Americans" but I feel that is extreme. I believe our freedoms have been taken by the terrorist who want to hurt us - they have created this situation, not the American government. I also have a question for you - what do you propose we do to monitor terrorist activity in America without restricting the civil liberties of Americans?

5/18/2006 9:54 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Lola: Thanks for the comment. I agree that we need to "take measures to protect our safety while maintaining our freedoms." I disagree with the assertions that "we can no longer live freely" and "our freedoms have been taken by the terrorist."

First, consider the risk which we are surrendering our freedoms to combat. I've written about it here. The post also contains my general blueprint for fighting terror.

Separately, I've proposed what I think is the proper framework for viewing terrorism here.

In general, I simply don't see the need for highly intrusive police powers. Terrorists don't just spring up from nowhere; a guy walking down the street in Detroit doesn't decide, out of the blue, to become a terrorist one day. Terrorists have connections, histories, contacts as they develop -- and they also leave a trail as they prepare for whatever attack they're planning to commit.

Those threats can be fought with decent intelligence and good police work. Identify a suspect, get a warrant, tap their phone, follow them around. FISA allows plenty of tools for doing just that.

I don't object to vigilance: what I object to is the huge increase in warrantless surveillance and searches. We should monitor those who needs monitoring; but we should cast our net with better-than-random accuracy, and we should get a warrant first.

5/18/2006 4:20 PM  

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