By Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006 7:00 AM
A majority of Americans initially support a controversial National Security Agency program to collect information on telephone calls made in the United States in an effort to identify and investigate potential terrorist threats, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.
A slightly larger majority--66 percent--said they would not be bothered if NSA collected records of personal calls they had made, the poll found.
Underlying those views is the belief that the need to investigate terrorism outweighs privacy concerns. According to the poll, 65 percent of those interviewed said it was more important to investigate potential terrorist threats "even if it intrudes on privacy." Three in 10--31 percent--said it was more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.
Half--51 percent--approved of the way President Bush was handling privacy matters.
The survey results reflect initial public reaction to the NSA program. Those views that could change or deepen as more details about the effort become known over the next few days.
USA Today disclosed in its Thursday editions the existence of the massive domestic intelligence-gathering program. The effort began soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the agency began collecting call records on tens of millions of personal and business telephone calls made in the United States. Agency personnel reportedly analyze those records to identify suspicious calling patterns but do not listen in on or record individual telephone conversations.
Word of the program sparked immediate criticism on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans criticized the effort as a threat to privacy and called for congressional inquiries to learn more about the operation. In the survey, big majorities of Republicans and political independents said they found the program to be acceptable while Democrats were split.
President Bush made an unscheduled appearance yesterday before White House reporters to defend his administration's efforts to investigate terrorism and criticize public disclosure of secret intelligence operations. But he did not directly acknowledge the existence of the NSA records-gathering program or answer reporters' questions about it.
By a 56 percent to 42 percent margin, Americans said it was appropriate for the news media to have disclosed the existence of this secret government program.
A total of 502 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday night for this survey. Margin of sampling error is five percentage points for the overall results. The practical difficulties of doing a survey in a single night represents another potential source of error.