WASHINGTON -- Americans believe that government surveillance programs collect far more information than even the widely reported recent leaks of classified data indicate and they increasingly worry that the scope of anti-terror programs has endangered civil liberties.
And yet, despite those concerns, Americans still narrowly approve of the “government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts,” with 50% approving and 44% disapproving, according to a newly released Pew Research Center survey.
A key to understanding the public’s seemingly ambivalent attitudes is that among those who believe the programs go beyond their official descriptions, feature excessive secrecy or don’t receive enough oversight by courts, a significant minority nonetheless approves of them. Those who believe the programs perform as advertised support them overwhelmingly.
Asked if they are more concerned that the government’s anti-terrorism surveillance programs go too far and endanger civil liberties or don’t go far enough to protect the country, 47% say their chief worry is that the programs go too far, compared with 35% who worry they don’t go far enough.
That’s the first time since Pew began asking that question in 2004 that more Americans put concern over civil liberties above concern over the ability of government programs to protect the country against terrorism. As recently as 2010, only one-third of Americans in a Pew poll said they thought the government’s anti-terror efforts went too far.
Large majorities of Americans say they think the government collects far more information than recent disclosures would indicate. Fewer than one-in-five Americans say they think the government’s anti-terror programs only collect information such as telephone numbers – the so-called “metadata” of calls. By contrast, 63% said they believe the government also collects the content of what is being said on telephone lines or written in e-mails.
More than one in four of those surveyed, 27%, said they thought the government had listened to their telephone calls.
An overwhelming 70% said they believed the government uses the information it gathers through anti-terrorism programs for other purposes. Many, particularly Republicans who identify with the Tea Party, volunteered that they believe the government uses such information for political purposes. None of the recent disclosures have involved such misuse of information, and no evidence of misuse has surfaced.
Not surprisingly, given those sentiments, a significant majority of Americans, 56%-30%, say they do not believe the courts put “adequate limits” on what telephone and Internet data the government collects.
But among those who gave answers which criticized the government’s anti-terror programs, more than 40% said they approved of those programs.
Concern over the government’s surveillance programs and their impact on civil liberties has grown among most major demographic and political groups, but has mounted particularly fast among Republicans. That could stem in party from animosity toward the Obama administration, but also reflects a growing degree of libertarian sentiments within the GOP on at least some issues.
Since 2010, the share of self-identified Republicans who say they are more concerned about surveillance programs going too far and hurting civil liberties has grown from 25% to 43%.
Among Republicans, the biggest shift has come among those who identify with the Tea Party, who until recently were among the most likely to say their top concern was that anti-terror programs didn’t go far enough. Now, they’ve swung nearly all the way around.
In 2010, 28% of those who identified with the Tea Party said they were more concerned that anti-terror policies might have gone too far and hurt civil liberties while 63% said they weren’t going far enough to protect the country. Now, 55% say they’ve gone too far and only 31% say they haven’t gone far enough.
Anti-terror surveillance programs have divided both parties -- a result that mirrors the split seen in the House on Wednesday when a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats backed a bill to curtail the surveillance authority given to the National Security Agency.
Both parties also split on the media’s role, with 45% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans saying that media should report information about secret methods the government uses to fight terror, while 51% in each party said the media should not do so.
During the George W. Bush administration, that question had a partisan split -- Democrats thought the media should report, and Republicans generally said no. Now, both parties have shifted in about the same amount, but in opposite directions. With a Democrat in the White House, more Democrats put protecting secrets at a higher priority.
The Pew results are based on interviews with 1,480 American adults, July 17-21. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.0 percentage points.