Americans and their odd relationship with wiretapping

June 7, 2013

The National Security Agency’s large-scale tracking of Americans’ phone records has drawn sharp criticism of government overreach from privacy advocates. But, polls over the past decade show broad support for wiretapping phones of suspected terrorists --even as many express concern that the government is not doing enough to protect individual rights.


Seven years ago, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 54 percent of Americans saying it was “acceptable” for the NSA to listen in on phone calls and e-mails of terrorists, even if this is done without a court order. Views were divided sharply on partisan lines, with 82 percent of Republicans approving of the practice and 68 percent of Democrats saying it was “unacceptable.” In that same survey, 51 percent of the public said the U.S. government was not doing enough to protect individual rights as it conducted the war on terrorism, with concern peaking among Democrats.

See interactive results for the 2006 survey here.


Washington Post-ABC News poll March 2-5, 2006 conducted among 1,000 randomly selected adults nationwide

The public was even more supportive of expanded authority given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with 62 percent in a 2006 Post-ABC poll saying that the FBI “should” have such authority. And in the wake of the attacks, a September 2001 survey found 90 percent in support of allowing wiretaps on phones of suspected terrorists.

The current situation is a bit different. The NSA’s apparent tracking of tens of millions of Americans’ phone records could touch a nerve about privacy. But that sentiment will also run up against support for aggressive investigation of terrorists and the belief that wiretapping is effective.

Ten years after the attacks, 77 percent of Americans in a 2011 Washington Post-ABC News poll said increased use of wiretaps and other surveillance methods has been effective in stemming the threat of terrorism, including majorities across party lines. The perceived effectiveness of wiretapping rivaled or exceeded confidence in missile strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, creating the Department of Homeland Security and increased airport security.

Scott Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

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