January 17, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

Somebody’s Watching Me: American Views on NSA Surveillance

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

President Obama delivered a speech earlier today announcing curbs he plans to implement on government surveillance activities. A survey conducted earlier this month (January 4-7, 2014) by Quinnipiac University showed that Americans tend to think that NSA collection of phone call records is excessively intrusive for Americans’ personal privacy. But the public is divided on whether the program is necessary to keep Americans safe. In contrast to 2012 Chicago Council Survey data that shows greater inclination among Republicans to support anti-terrorism efforts, this recent poll shows a partisan shift here—with more Democrats than Republicans saying the phone record program is necessary for US security.

Many Americans Seem to Agree that Leaks Created “More Heat than Light”

Given the open investigation against Edward Snowden, the President limited his comments on Snowden’s actions, though he did characterize the nature of the disclosures as creating “more heat than light.” For their part, a majority of Americans consider Snowden a “whistle blower” (57%) versus a “traitor” (34%). Yet by about a 5 to 4 margin, more say that Snowden’s revelations were mainly bad for the country (46% bad, 40% good), and think the Obama administration should NOT “drop the pursuit of Snowden and let him come home as a free man” (47%, 39% should drop pursuit).

Bare Majority Say NSA Surveillance Has Gone Too Far

When asked whether anti-terrorism policies have gone too far in impinging upon civil liberties or not far enough to adequately protect the country, 51 percent of Americans think the government has gone too far (33% not far enough, 16% unsure). This marks the first time since this question was asked in 2010 that a (bare) majority says the government has gone too far. Back in 2010, a majority (63%) thought the government was NOT doing enough. Once Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance became public in the summer of 2013, pluralities began to say the government had gone too far (Figure 1).

US Public Evenly Split on NSA Collecting Metadata

Americans are nearly evenly divided in the most recent survey (48% support, 47% oppose), on their views toward the government program that scans telephone calls, with slightly more now opposing than did in July 2013 (Figure 2). Americans are similarly divided on whether the program is necessary (48% support, 46% oppose). Since June 2013, the proportion of Americans who say that this program is not necessary for US security has risen, from 40% in June 2013 to 46% in January 2014 (Figure 3).

 

Democrats Are Most Likely to Support Phone Surveillance

The issue of NSA surveillance is one that does not line up neatly along party lines. The NSA’s activities are opposed by both the libertarian right and the civil-liberties left, uniting Rand Paul Republicans with ACLU Democrats. In contrast to Chicago Council polling on support for other anti-terrorism activities, both Quinnipiac and CBS surveys have found lower support among Republicans than among Democrats for broad government surveillance programs. Six in ten Democrats (58%) support federal government program in which all phone calls are scanned to see if any calls are going to a phone number linked to terrorism, compared to 49 percent of Republicans and 48% of Independents (Figure 4). Six in ten Democrats (62%) also think the government's collection of Americans' phone call records is a necessary tool; barely half of Republicans (48%) and Independents (47%) agree (Figure 5).



By contrast, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that Republicans are more likely than Democrats or Independents to support military actions to combat terrorism (see Figure 6). Relatedly, Republicans are also more likely to label international terrorism as a critical threat to the United States (77%, vs. 65% of Democrats and 61% of Independents).

So what explains this somewhat counterintuitive finding? One way to look at this is that despite the unusual partisan divides on the NSA program, what’s going on here is normal partisan politics. The NSA is an executive-branch agency, and the Snowden revelations came out during President Obama’s tenure, making the issue ‘his’. In the absence of truly disastrous outcomes, partisans support their own, especially their own President. Thus you get higher Democratic support for policies that, had they been revealed under a Republican president, would likely see the reverse.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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