A majority of Americans – 56% – say that federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the telephone and internet data the government is collecting as part of its anti-terrorism efforts. An even larger percentage (70%) believes that the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism.
And despite the insistence by the president and other senior officials that only “metadata,” such as phone numbers and email addresses, is being collected, 63% think the government is also gathering information about the content of communications – with 27% believing the government has listened to or read their phone calls and emails.
Nonetheless, the public’s bottom line on government anti-terrorism surveillance is narrowly positive. The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted July 17-21 among 1,480 adults, finds that 50% approve of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 44% disapprove. These views are little changed from a month ago, when 48% approved and 47% disapproved.
The divisions in public opinion about the government’s data-collection program were mirrored in a congressional vote this week on the issue. On July 24, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment to scale back the NSA’s telephone data collection.
Nationwide, there is more support for the government’s data-collection program among Democrats (57% approve) than among Republicans (44%), but both parties face significant internal divisions: 36% of Democrats disapprove of the program as do 50% of Republicans.
While views of the program itself are mixed, the debate has raised public concern about whether anti-terror programs are restricting civil liberties.
Overall, 47% say their greater concern about government anti-terrorism policies is that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties, while 35% say they are more concerned that policies have not gone far enough to protect the country. This is the first time in Pew Research polling that more have expressed concern over civil liberties than protection from terrorism since the question was first asked in 2004.
As concern about civil liberties has grown, the issue now divides members of both parties. Roughly four-in-ten Republicans (43%) and Democrats (42%) say their greater concern over anti-terror policies is that they have gone too far in restricting civil liberties, up sharply from three years ago (25% and 33% in 2010, respectively).
Republicans and Democrats also express similar opinions about news coverage of secret government anti-terrorism programs: Nearly identical percentages in both parties (45% of Democrats, 43% of Republicans) say that the news media should report information it obtains about the secret methods the government uses to fight terrorism, while 51% in each party say it should not.
This marks a change in opinion among both parties since 2006, when Bush administration anti-terror surveillance programs faced scrutiny. In May 2006, a Gallup/USA Today poll found that most Democrats supported news reporting on secret anti-terror programs, while most Republicans said the press should not divulge this information.
Many Who Think Gov’t Has Accessed Their Data Support the Program
The public’s views of the government’s anti-terrorism efforts are complex, and many who believe the reach of the government’s data collection program is expansive still approve of the effort overall. In every case, however, those who view the government’s data collection as far-reaching are less likely to approve of the program than those who do not.
People who believe the government is collecting what is actually being said in emails and phone calls are divided over the overall program: About as many approve (47%) as disapprove (50%) of the government’s collection of phone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts despite the impression that it is not limited to metadata.
Even among those who believe their own communications have been read or listened to, 40% approve of the program, while 58% disapprove.
Of those who say the government is using data for purposes other than to investigate terrorism, 43% approve of the government’s data collection; 53% disapprove. Among the small minority (22% of the public) that says the data is only being used to investigate terrorism, 71% approve while just 23% disapprove.
And those who say federal courts do not place adequate limits on the information the government can collect disapprove of the program by a 62%-36% margin. Conversely, those who say there are adequate limits approve of it, 75%-21%.
Some Suspect Political Motives in Use of Data
A broad majority of the public (70%) believes that the government also is using the data it collects through the NSA program for purposes other than to investigate terrorism. When those who express this view are asked an open-ended question about what other purposes the data is being used for, a range of responses are given, with many focusing on general concerns about government monitoring and spying.
About two-in-ten (19%) say the government is using this data to spy or “be nosy,” and another 14% say it is being used for general purposes or monitoring.
But some say the government is collecting this data for political purposes: 13% say the government has a political agenda, while another 5% say it is being used for general profiling or targeting, to target interest and religious groups or for tax purposes.
Rising Concern over Civil Liberties
Nearly half of Americans (47%) say their greater concern about government anti-terrorism policies is that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties; 35% say their greater concern is that they have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country. There has been a 15-point rise in the percentage saying their greater concern is civil liberties since Pew Research last asked the question in October 2010. This is the first time a plurality has expressed greater concern about civil liberties than security since the question was first asked in 2004.
The increase in concern about civil liberties has taken place across the board, with double-digit shifts in opinion among nearly all partisan and demographic groups. Republicans prioritized security over civil liberties by a 58%-25% margin in 2010. Today, Republicans are as likely to say their bigger concern is civil liberties (43%) as security (38%), a balance of opinion nearly identical to that among Democrats (42% civil liberties, 38% security).
While this change has been broad-based, the transformation among Tea Party Republicans stands out. Today, most Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters who agree with the Tea Party are more concerned that government programs are going too far in restricting civil liberties (55%). In October 2010, Tea Party Republican voters by about three-to-one (63% to 20%) said the programs did not go far enough in protecting the country.
Among Democrats and independents, increasing percentages also say their greater concern is that anti-terror policies have curbed civil liberties. About four-in-ten Democrats (42%) express this view, up from 33% three years ago. And the share of independents expressing greater concern over civil liberties has risen 17 points since 2010.
Those under the age of 30 stand out for their broad concern over civil liberties. By about two-to-one (60%-29%) young people say their bigger concern about the government’s anti-terrorism policies is that they have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties rather than not going far enough to protect the country.
There is also a substantial gender gap: by a 51% to 29% margin men are more concerned that government policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Women are divided, with 42% more worried about civil liberties and 40% more concerned that government policies haven’t gone far enough to protect the country.
Modest Partisan Differences in Perceptions of Data Collection
Overall, Democrats approve of the government’s data collection program by a 57%-36% margin, while Republicans (44% approve, 50% disapprove) and independents (47% approve, 48% disapprove) are more divided.
Republicans and independents also perceive the program as more far-reaching in scope and less limited. For example, 64% of Republicans and 67% of independents believe the government is collecting not only metadata but also what is being said in phone calls and emails; slightly fewer (58%) Democrats share this view.
However, these gaps in opinion are relatively modest, as half or more Democrats believe the program is not sufficiently limited by courts (51%), collects the content of communications (58%) and uses the data for purposes other than terrorism investigations (60%).
Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party strongly disapprove of the NSA program. Overall, 62% of Tea Party Republicans disapprove of the government’s data collection program, while just 34% approve. By contrast, Republicans and Republican leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party are divided in their views of the program (51% approve, 45% disapprove).
Tea Party Republicans also express far more concern about the scope of the program. For example, fully 87% of Tea Party Republicans believe the government uses the data it collects for purposes other than terrorism investigations. When asked what other purposes the data is used for, the top answer among Tea Party Republicans – volunteered by 32% – is that the data is used to pursue political objectives or to target political opponents.
Should the Media Report on Government Anti-Terror Methods?
The public is divided over whether the news media should report on information it obtains about the secret methods the government is using to fight terrorism. About half (47%) say that the media should report on the government’s secret methods, while the same percentage says they should not; overall opinion on this question is little changed from May 2006.
Both Republicans and Democrats are split on this issue – 43% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats say the media should report on secret methods to fight terrorism, while 51% of both parties say that they should not.
In 2006, there were large partisan differences on this question. At that time, Democrats thought the media should report this information by a 59%-38% margin. Most Republicans (68%) thought the news media should not report on government anti-terrorism methods, while just 26% thought that they should.
On Terrorism, Concerns about Both Government and Media
The public’s division of opinion on whether or not the media should report the government’s anti-terror methods is informed by the fact that majorities agree both with two separate statements: that the government is too secretive and that media reports can harm anti-terror programs.
When asked if the media reports too much information that can harm the government’s anti-terrorism programs, 53% of the public agrees with this statement, while 43% disagree. At the same time, most (56%) also agree that the government keeps too much information about its anti-terrorism programs secret from the public.
Comparable majorities of both Republicans and Democrats express concerns that the media reports too much information that can harm government anti-terrorism programs and that the government keeps too much information about anti-terrorism programs secret from the public.
Overall, 28% of respondents agree with both statements. Among this group slightly more (55%) say the media should not report on the government’s secret anti-terrorism methods, while 41% say that they should.
Age and Views of Civil Liberties, Gov’t Surveillance
As noted, young people are more likely than older people to express concern that the government’s anti-terrorism policies go too far in restricting civil liberties.
And majorities of those under 30 (55%), as well those 30 to 49 (53%), say the news media should report on secret methods the government uses to fight terrorism. Older Americans are more opposed to the media covering secret anti-terror tactics.
Yet the large age differences about civil liberties, security and secrecy don’t translate into an equally sizeable divide over the NSA surveillance program itself. About as many young people approve (46%) as disapprove (49%) of the government’s data collection program. The age differences in overall opinions about the program are modest, with about half in older age groups approving of the program.