WASHINGTON (AP) — Most Americans are unimpressed with President Barack Obama’s efforts to restore trust in government in the wake of disclosures about secret surveillance programs that swept up the phone records of hundreds of millions in the United States.
And Americans are increasingly placing personal privacy ahead of being kept safe from terrorists, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. More than 60 percent of respondents said they value privacy over anti-terror protections. That’s up slightly from 58 percent in a similar poll in August conducted by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Obama has been fighting to regain public trust after a former National Security Agency analyst last year revealed some of the intelligence community’s most well-kept secrets about spying on Americans. The U.S. public, Congress and allies overseas were shocked to learn the extent of the NSA’s post-9/11 surveillance, including the dragnet collection and storage of Americans’ phone records.
"It’s just like a fundamental right that we have as American citizens to privacy and civil liberties," said respondent Annie Mroz, 23, of Philadelphia. "I sort of think that the government is just like gradually encroaching on our rights under this sort of giant umbrella of protecting us from terrorism or so-called security."
Soon after Edward Snowden’s disclosure in June, Obama promised to review the system that has changed rapidly as technology improved.
Last week the president announced he was placing new limits on the way the intelligence community accesses phone records from hundreds of millions of Americans. He said he was moving toward eventually stripping the massive data collection from the government’s hands. And he called for a panel of advocates to represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the secret court that oversees the surveillance programs.
But the poll found that was not enough to allay most Americans’ concerns. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the way Obama is handling intelligence surveillance policies. And 61 percent said they prioritize protecting Americans’ rights and freedoms over making sure Americans are safe from terrorists.
Only 34 percent support Obama’s plan to create a panel of outside attorneys to offer an opposing argument to the government before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And just 17 percent of those polled support moving the data the government collects about telephone calls outside of government hands.
In an effort to be more transparent, the intelligence community has declassified thousands of pages of documents related to the secret programs, including stinging rebukes from judges about the NSA’s violation of some of the program’s rules.
But Americans are split on whether the government should publicly justify its surveillance programs to prove they don’t violate civil rights. Some 49 percent said keeping the details of the programs secret is more important than justifying their legality. Most people under 30 said it’s more important to disclose the details of the programs, while most Americans age 65 or over said the U.S. intelligence gathering details should remain secret.
Most Americans said Snowden was wrong to disclose these classified programs.
"He was completely wrong," said Barry Miller, 73, of Plano, Texas. "I don’t need to know that the NSA is spying on me. I’m sure they’re not, but if they are, go ahead. I feel like only the criminals have things to hide."
Younger Americans are more apt to support what Snowden, 30, did. Snowden fled the country before his revelations became public. He is currently living in Russia, granted temporary asylum from the criminal charges he faces in the United States for disseminating classified information.
A government review panel warned last week that the NSA’s daily collection of Americans’ phone records is illegal and recommended that Obama abandon the program and destroy the hundreds of millions of phone records it has already collected. The recommendations by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board go further than Obama is willing to accept and increase pressure on Congress to make changes.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Jan. 17-21 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel. It involved online interviews with 1,060 adults. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points for all respondents. Those respondents who did not have Internet access before joining the panel were provided it for free.
AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com