Nation Split on NSA Records Collection

The Associated Press
Friday, May 12, 2006; 7:45 AM

-- A report in USA Today that the National Security Agency was building a database of Americans' phone records, with the help of three major U.S. telephone companies, reignited discussion around the country about the tricky balance between civil liberties and counterterrorism efforts.

While it was too early to get a scientific read on the nation's thoughts on the program, interviews and a scan of closely watched Web logs appeared to indicate a split that mirrored opinions on the NSA wiretapping program disclosed late last year.

Ask Marie Martin what she thinks of revelations that a federal agency is collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans, and her thoughts turn immediately to Baghdad.

That is where her son, Army Staff Sgt. William Connor, fractured his back and injured a leg when he was knocked out of a truck by Iraqi insurgent fire. To Martin, the argument over domestic surveillance begins and ends there.

"I think anything they can do to get rid of the terrorists needs to be done," Martin, a 76-year-old retired customer service worker living in Colorado Springs, Colo., said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I have nothing to hide."

While some _ like Martin _ supported the records collection and trusted President Bush's assertion Thursday that Americans' privacy was being "fiercely" protected, others expressed grave worries about a secretive and unchecked administration.

"What concerns me most is I don't know what else they've got," said Bob Demmers, 50, a letter carrier in Grand Forks, N.D. "Every month we're finding out one more thing that they've been collecting on people. We don't know what's coming up next."

Demmers said he was concerned the nation had been slipping away from the Constitution since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and said he wondered whether the government was listening in on his own phone calls.

Without explicitly confirming the USA Today report, Bush, in a brief statement from the White House, sought to assure the nation that "we're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."

The newspaper report said the NSA was not listening to the content of the calls it was tracking, but was analyzing call patterns in hopes of detecting terrorist activity.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted in February found Americans evenly split on whether it was appropriate for the administration to listen to Americans' phone calls without obtaining a court warrant. Several people interviewed by the AP on Thursday had been questioned in that poll.

There was no polling yet on the new NSA revelations, but anecdotal evidence suggested the issue was destined to cause the kind of passionate split the nation has grown familiar with since the 2000 election.

Left- and right-wing political blogs seized on the report, many of them adding their own sarcasm _ "NSA accused of protecting U.S. from terrorists," offered conservative site Power Line.

Meanwhile, a poster on the liberal site Daily Kos lamented, "So much for privacy _ telecoms cave to government." It suggested readers complain to the companies working with NSA _ AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp.

And at left-wing Firedoglake, a poster suggested the program violated the very notions of liberty and freedom. Above the posting was a picture of a farm of satellite dishes and the headline, "Are they listening?"

Some bloggers tore into USA Today for publishing the information in the first place, even suggesting it had helped make Qwest Communications International Inc. the terrorists' carrier of choice because it refused to turn over records to the NSA.

Bush emphasized leaks of sensitive intelligence hurt "our ability to defeat this enemy."

"I think they should find the leakers and prosecute them," said Gayle Dethman, a florist who works from home in Portland, Ore. "I want to be protected, and I think they need to do what they have to do."

The NSA discussion appeared to be the next chapter in the nation's sorting-out of the liberty-security balance, and how much power should be entrusted to the administration in the name of preventing another Sept. 11.

For James Roberts, a 72-year-old retiree and Navy veteran living in Seneca, S.C., Bush has gone too far. He said he worries about a drift toward a "police state" and an administration unconcerned with accountability.

"It is any business of the government if I call my sister-in-law in Chicago and say, `How you doing?'" he asked. "I think it is truly an invasion of privacy. It's a violation of individual rights."

© 2006 The Associated Press