Security > privacy, in 1 poll question

June 11, 2013

In the immediate aftermath of the leaking of classified documents regarding the National Security Agency's surveillance programs last week, we wrote a piece arguing that in the battle between privacy and security the American public always chooses the latter.

Now comes a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll that probes how people think about the balance between civil liberties and their own safety. (And, yes, civil libertarians, we know there is an argument to be made that it is a false choice.)  The entire poll is worth checking out but one question stood out to us. Here it is.

A few takeaways:

1. That more than six in ten respondents (62 percent) in the new Post-Pew survey prioritize "investigating terrorist threats" over not intruding on personal privacy in a poll that was conducted while the NSA/Edward Snowden story absolutely dominated news coverage is remarkable. If ever there was a time when concerns over civil liberties might rise, now would be it. And they aren't.

2. Going back seven years, the numbers on this question are remarkably consistent. In a January 2006 Pew poll, 65 percent said that it was more important to investigate terrorists than protect personal privacy. In November 2010, that number was 68 percent. That sort of consistency of public opinion suggests that peoples' minds are made up and external events aren't likely to drastically move the needle. (It's also worth noting that all of the numbers cited above come far after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks so the idea that the data might be skewed by a recent event isn't born out.)

These poll numbers make quite clear why the Obama Administration -- from the president on down -- has responded to the NSA revelations by insisting that programs  like PRISM are necessary to keep Americans safe. That's an argument that large majorities of the public -- and most Republican and Democratic elected officials -- either already believe or are ready to believe in the wake of the NSA surveillance revelations.

Civil libertarians and some in Congress (Rand Paul, we are looking at you) will undoubtedly continue to focus on the NSA surveillance program for some time to come. But, there seems a limited appetite for their argument from the American public.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · June 11, 2013