Poll Analysis: Concern Growing Over Loss of Civil Liberties

Times Poll Assoc. Director

As the events of September 11th fade in immediacy and new measures to fight terrorism are enacted, Americans are growing more concerned that anti-terrorism measures could lead to restricted civil liberties for all, according to a recent Times poll.

The use of ethnic profiling in the hunt for terrorists has become a particularly polarizing issue, but there is support for giving government broader powers to monitor phone, internet and wireless communications.

Very few members of the general public are making any sort of preparations against the threat of further terrorism--more than eight in 10 said they haven't made any effort to prepare, although one in 10 did say they've purchased a filter mask or gas mask.

Role of Government

The September 11th attack and subsequent events have had an impact on people's perception of government and its role in everyday life, the survey found. About half (51%) said what annoys them most about government today is that it doesn't do enough to protect citizens, compared to 23% who said government intrudes too much into private lives. African Americans in particular expressed annoyance with a government that doesn't protect its citizens--67% vs. 13% who said intrusion is more annoying.

Similarly, the idea that suicide hijackers responsible for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were able to live hidden in the United States may be what has influenced the increase in the proportion of respondents who said that individuals or groups who abuse the freedoms we have are more dangerous than those who seek to limit freedoms. Fifty-seven percent said that abusers of freedoms are more dangerous while three in 10 named those who seek to limit them. By comparison, a June 1991 Times Poll survey found the country much more divided over this question--45% were more concerned about those who abuse freedoms while 48% thought those seeking to limit freedoms were more dangerous.

Anti-terrorism vs. Civil Liberties

Fifty-five percent of the public said they are very (18%) or somewhat (37%) concerned that steps taken to round up terrorists could end up restricting the civil liberties of the rest of us. Republicans* (46%) are less concerned about the issue than Democrats (62%), and whites (51%) less so than African Americans or Latinos (64% and 65% respectively.)

* Political party throughout this report will refer to the respondent's self-described party leanings, rather than voting habits or registration.

By comparison, a Times Poll survey taken just after the attack in September found six in 10 who said it would be necessary to give up some civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. (That figure was up twelve percentage points from a Times Poll survey taken April 1995, just after the Oklahoma City bombing.)

To further test support for controversial anti-terrorism proposals, the Times Poll asked questions about three types of measures that have either been proposed or already enacted and found a mixed range of opinion. The questions were previously asked in a Times Poll survey last September. What was found was that public support for extending the powers of law enforcement officials to tap phones and monitor wireless communications has increased somewhat over the last two months. Support for monitoring Internet communications such as e-mails has changed little but public opinion on the use of ethnicity to target possible terrorists for questioning has turned, leaving the country split on this issue.


The survey found Americans most supportive of the broadening of government powers to tap telephone lines and monitor wireless communications, including cell phones. By a 23 point margin, 59% to 36%, the public said it approves of this move and a third (34%) said they strongly approve. Support has broadened since this question was last asked by the Times Poll in September, when the margin of approval was 14 percentage points--54% to 40%.

There is less approval of broader wiretapping powers among African Americans (49%) than among either whites (61%) or Latinos (62%). Support is strong across the political spectrum although Republicans are slightly more approving (69%) than are Democrats (58%) or independents (59%.)

Younger people (18-29) are split on this issue. Nearly half (49%) of the younger group disapprove of broadening government powers to monitor phone communications compared to 46% who approve. Greatest approbation is found among those who are 45 to 64, two-thirds of whom approve of it, two in five approving strongly.

Monitoring Internet Communication

Less popular, but still garnering a bare majority of support is the idea of expanding government monitoring of electronic communication such as e-mail. Just about half (51%) of the public approve of government nosing in on personal Internet communications in its hunt for terrorists, while 44% don't approve. This level of support has remained steady since asked last September, when the Times Poll measured 50% approval vs. 45% disapproval.

Concern over monitoring Internet communications is highest among those who identify with the Democrats, with a slim majority (53%) of self-described liberal Democrats expressing disapproval of such measures. By comparison, 59% of self-described conservative Republicans approve. In fact, more than a third of all Republicans approve strongly of the idea, compared to three in 10 Democrats of all stripes who disapprove strongly.

A majority (56%) of younger people disapprove of expanding government monitoring powers and two out of five feel ardently about it. Older people are split 44% to 43% and the age groups between express majority support. Men tend to be more concerned than women, approving only by 48% to 48% disapproval while a 54% majority of women approve vs. 40% who do not. This issue also brings out some partisan divisions. Under half of Democrats (49% to 45%) and liberal Democrats (46% to 53%) approve, compared to nearly six in 10 Republicans (57% to 39%) and conservative Republicans (59% to 38%). Independents are in the middle at 50% to 46%.

Ethnic Profiling

Opposition to ethnic profiling has hardened over the last two months, the survey found. Americans are now nearly split over whether law enforcement should be allowed to stop people whose ethnicity resembles that of the terrorists. Forty-seven percent overall approve of law enforcement being able to detain possible terrorists based on ethnicity alone while 49% do not.

In the Times poll taken just after the attack, nearly seven in 10 respondents approved of ethnic profiling, including six in 10 African Americans. (Wording varied slightly in that survey.) Perhaps the shock of the attack has worn off some now, because the current survey found three out of five blacks disapproving of using ethnicity as a reason for stopping suspected terrorists. More than half of Latinos (53%) disapproved as well, while 51% of whites approved.

Republicans (and particularly the most conservative) on the other hand, approve of law enforcement's use of ethnic profiling in its search for terrorists. Nearly six in 10 Republicans said they approve of it and a third approve strongly. Sixty-three percent of conservative Republicans approve. On the other end of the scale, about the same proportion of liberal Democrats disagree with that assessment--six in 10 disapprove, and four in 10 disapprove strongly. Just over half of independents approve of giving law enforcement broader powers in this area.

Immigration and Visas

This survey found virtually no change since September's poll which showed 84% favoring tightened restrictions on visas for visitors and students from other countries. The same proportion in this survey favored making it more difficult for visitors to obtain visas.

Two-thirds said that the U.S. admits too many immigrants, compared to 27% who said we admit just the right number, and 2% think the number is too low. Latinos are split on this issue: 46% who think there are too many immigrants, to 47% who think there are just the right amount. Seven in 10 whites and over six in 10 blacks agree that the current number is too high.

However, more than three-quarters of the public overall think that immigration applications from Arab countries do not deserve closer scrutiny than those from other countries.

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