Privacy Confronts National Security in Obama Surveillance

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Fifty-three percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of U.S. President Barack Obama, down from 56 percent who said so in February. Close

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Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Fifty-three percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of U.S. President Barack Obama, down from 56 percent who said so in February.

President Barack Obama’s newly revealed telephone and Internet surveillance have reopened a national debate over balancing personal liberty with security, underscoring the degree to which American worries about terrorism have trumped concerns about sacrificing privacy.

The conversation -- quiet if not dormant until recently in the absence of a terrorist attack in the U.S. -- has re-emerged in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and escalated in recent days with revelations that Obama’s administration is mining phone and Internet data for terrorism clues.

Yet amid the criticism, there’s little sign of a broader backlash against the president or his approach, say public opinion analysts and political observers, given that Americans have grown accustomed to the idea of sacrificing some personal liberty in the interest of staying safe from terrorism.

“There’s a lot of opposition to the specific surveillance tactics, but in general, the balance of opinion is in favor of protection from terrorism, even at the expense of civil liberties,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director at the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan polling and public policy institute.

What’s more, in a digital-technology age in which it is commonplace for people to instantaneously post photographs and share personal accounts of their activities on social-media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, Americans no longer expect that much of their lives will stay private.

Personal Boundaries

That follows reports in recent years of new and different ways in which private companies and even political campaigns are collecting and using personal data for marketing and other purposes, said Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

“The difficulty is that the world has so changed, and for the public, we’ve gone from a sense of privacy to a sense that we have lost control of our own information, our own lives,” said Hart, chairman of Washington-based Hart Research and Associates.

“To a certain extent, Americans have created their own set of problems by using social media, and when we voluntarily give up information, we’re more accepting of this invasion,” Hart said. “But when it’s not being given up of our own volition, we find it more threatening.”

Obama, responding publicly to the controversy for the first time yesterday, said he welcomed the debate and considered it “a sign of maturity” in the post-9/11 age. Democrats and Republicans who “weren’t very worried about it when it was a Republican president” in control of government surveillance are now asking questions, he said. Still, in defending the programs, Obama suggested that individual rights sometimes must be compromised for American’s safety.

No 100-Percent

“It’s important to understand that you can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience -- we’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” Obama told reporters in San Jose, California. “In the abstract, you can complain about ‘Big Brother’ or how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

Some prominent members of Congress in both parties say they agree. The leaders of the congressional intelligence committees issued joint statements this week defending the telephone-surveillance program and asserting its legality, saying they had been monitoring the activities regularly.

“It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years,” said Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The panel’s chairwoman, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, summed it up this way: “It’s called protecting America.”

Obama Challenged

Still, Obama faces criticism both from Democrats alleging his administration is trampling civil liberties and Republicans who say his anti-terror tactics are just the latest example of his government overreaching.

“If the seizure and surveillance of Americans’ phone records -- across the board and with little to no discrimination -- is now considered a legitimate security precaution, there is literally no protection of any kind guaranteed anymore to American citizens,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky wrote in an opinion piece yesterday in The Guardian, which first reported the phone-data collection program. “In their actions, more outrageous and numerous by the day, this administration continues to treat the U.S. Constitution as a dead letter.”

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia called for an end to the broad surveillance in an interview on “Political Capital With Al Hunt,” airing on Bloomberg Television this weekend. “I’m wanting to do everything I can to fight the war on terror,” Manchin said. “But do you give up everything as an American?”

Opinion Shifting

Public sentiment on the issue has morphed since the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when a Pew poll found 55 percent saying it would be “necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties” to curb terrorism, while 35 percent said it wouldn’t be necessary. A decade later, in 2011, the same question yielded almost the opposite result: 54 percent said it wouldn’t be necessary to give up liberties, while 40 percent said it would be.

At the same time, however, Pew has found that people are more concerned that anti-terror policies won’t go far enough to safeguard them than they are that those programs have gone too far in infringing on civil liberties.

In 2010, Pew found, 47 percent of those surveyed said they were more concerned the government hadn’t “gone far enough to adequately protect the country,” while 32 percent said they were worried they have “gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties.”

Boston Impact

Sentiment may be changing.

Polls conducted in the wake of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings suggested the public is increasingly concerned that the government will overreach in pursuing terrorist threats. A Washington Post (WPO) poll released April 18 found 48 percent said they were more concerned the government will go too far in compromising constitutional rights to investigate terrorism, while 41 percent said they were more concerned the government wouldn’t go far enough because of concern for constitutional rights.

A Fox News poll the same week found the public split over whether they were willing to give up some personal freedom to reduce the threat of terrorism, with 43 percent saying yes and 45 percent saying no -- within the poll’s error margin. That was the least willing respondents had been to sacrifice liberties for security since before the 9/11 attacks, when a May 2001 Fox survey found 33 percent saying they would do so and 40 percent saying they wouldn’t.

Civil Liberties

Civil libertarians say they worry that, years after the existence of anti-terrorism surveillance programs were first revealed under former President George W. Bush, the public and their representatives in Congress have grown complacent with the assurances of all three branches of government that individual rights are being protected.

Obama and his team have “promised us that there are secret things that have happened since 2009 to rein in some of these abuses, but they won’t talk about them publicly, and we are rightly suspicious,” Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “This feels like Congress, the administration and the courts colluding to hide these programs.”

9/11 Commission

Members of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon outside of Washington were worried about such a result and recommended the creation of a White House panel on civil liberties to ensure personal rights stayed at the forefront of counterterrorism debates, said former Republican Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey, a co-chairman of the panel.

“We felt that in instances where there was a conflict between national security and civil liberties, national security always won, and we felt very strongly that civil liberties had to have a voice,” Kean said in an interview, noting that the panel has yet to become fully functional. “What we’re having now, I believe, is no debate. We’re simply going ahead, and that’s dangerous in a democracy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at jdavis159@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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