A large majority of Americans say the federal government should focus on investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised, and most support the blanket tracking of telephone records in an effort to uncover terrorist activity, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.
Fully 45 percent of all Americans say the government should be able to go further than it is, saying that it should be able to monitor everyone’s online activity if doing so would prevent terrorist attacks. A slender majority, 52 percent, say no such broad-based monitoring should occur.
The new survey comes amid recent revelations of the National Security Agency’s extensive collection of telecommunications data to facilitate terrorism investigations.
Overall, 56 percent of Americans consider the NSA’s accessing of telephone call records of millions of Americans through secret court orders “acceptable,” while 41 percent call the practice “unacceptable.” In 2006, when news broke of the NSA’s monitoring of telephone and e-mail communications without court approval, there was a closer divide on the practice — 51 percent to 47 percent.
General priorities also are similar to what they were in 2006: Sixty-two percent of Americans now say it’s more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats, even if those investigations intrude on personal privacy, while 34 percent say privacy should be the focus, regardless of the effect on such investigations.
But with a Democratic president at the helm instead of a Republican, partisan views have turned around significantly.
Sixty-nine percent of Democrats say terrorism investigations, not privacy, should be the government’s main concern, an 18-percentage-point jump from early January 2006, when the NSA activity under the George W. Bush administration was first reported. Compared with that time, Republicans’ focus on privacy has increased 22 points.
The reversal on the NSA’s practices is even more dramatic. In early 2006, 37 percent of Democrats found the agency’s activities acceptable; now nearly twice that number — 64 percent — say the use of telephone records is okay. By contrast, Republicans slumped from 75 percent acceptable to 52 percent today.
Compared with a 2002 Pew poll, Democrats are now 12 percentage points more apt to support the government’s monitoring of all e-mails and other online activity if officials say that it might help prevent terrorist attacks. On the flip side, the number of Republicans who say the government should not do this has increased by 13 points.
The poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,004 adults. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The question on monitoring everyone’s online activity was asked starting Friday; results from that question have a 4.5-point error margin.
Cohen is polling director for Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.