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.
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.”
“The combating-terrorism issue still has resonance with the American public,” says political scientist Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University in Massachusetts. “But the public’s tolerance for this sort of invasion of privacy may be topping out. It may be people are starting to say: ‘When is the other shoe going to drop? What else are they doing?’ ”
About two-thirds say they’re concerned that the federal government might be gathering other information about the public, such as bank records and data on Internet use, or listening in on domestic phone conversations without obtaining a warrant.
Even with people like Newt Gingrich asserting that it is “perfectly legal” (first, Mr. Gingrich’s acquaintance with Constitutional scholarship is a point of discussion for another time, and second, just because something is legal doesn’t make it right), the public is finally waking up to the fact that the Bush administration has, at long last, gone too far.
Not only that, the Bush administration, in the person of John Negroponte, the head of all US intelligence, denied vehemently as recently as a week ago that the NSA was doing any such thing as monitoring domestic calls.
When he was asked about the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance program last Monday, U.S. intelligence chief John D. Negroponte objected to the question and said the government was “absolutely not” monitoring domestic calls without warrants.
“I wouldn’t call it domestic spying,” he told reporters. “This is about international terrorism and telephone calls between people thought to be working for international terrorism and people here in the United States.”
Three days later, USA Today divulged details of the NSA’s effort to log a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — amassing the domestic call records of tens of millions of U.S. households and businesses in an attempt to sift them for clues about terrorist threats.
To put a really fine point on it, Mr. Negroponte said they were not “monitoring domestic calls without warrants,” and the administration’s defenders say that gathering phone numbers isn’t monitoring. Ah, yes…and these are the same people who lambasted Bill Clinton for re-defining “is” and laughed Al Gore out of the room for saying there was “no controlling authority” over his fund-raising at a Buddhist temple. It’s funny how legalisms and parsing becomes all the rage when it’s your ox being gored.