Thursday, 27. June 2013 10:58
According to the latest Pew/Washington Post poll, 56% of the Americans say that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, while a non-negligible minority of 41% finds it unacceptable. However, the latest Gallup poll done on the same topic claims the opposite: that 53% of the Americans disapprove of the programme, while only 37% approve of it. What conclusion can one draw from these seemingly contradictory results? Why are they so substantially different? And, most importantly, who are the people for and against PRISM and why is the public opinion so polarized on this issue?
The two polls were conducted roughly around the same period of time (7-9 June 2013 for Pew, 10-11 June 2013 for Gallup), and interviewed the same number of people (a bit over 1,000 each). The way in which the question was asked was, nevertheless, one of the major differences between the two surveys: if Pew phrased the question in a way that mentioned the use of a “secret court order” and explained that there were “MILLIONS” (in capital letters) of Americans who had only their telephone records checked by the NSA, Gallup inquired over both telephone and Internet records and made no indication of any legal procedure that might have been followed by the NSA, nor mentioned the number of Americans affected. However, Pew did ask a separate question over the monitoring of e-mail and other on-line activities where 45% of the interviewees agreed with the surveillance as long as it was pursued with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks, while 52% disagreed.
These slight differences in the framing of the questions might have distorted the answers to a certain extent. Firstly, the Pew poll emphasized to (or maybe even informed?) the interviewee of the underlying legality of PRISM, by implying that a competent judicial authority had some knowledge about it. Secondly, while Pew asked two separate questions obtaining two quintessential opposing results, Gallup asked a more comprehensive question that, in percentage points, received almost the average of the two Pew questions. Thirdly, the fact that the interviews were held a few days later might have also played a small part given the age of fast information we are living in, when new declarations, articles, and strong editorial positions come out on an hourly basis.
Either way, regardless of the phrasing and the timing of the interviews, the partisan division over the topic is clear. If Pew did not conduct any inquiries over this matter, the results of the Gallup poll suggest that Democrats are more likely to approve (49%) of the government’s programme to obtain call logs and Internet communication, while the Independents (34% approval rate) and the Republicans (32%) are more likely to disapprove it. A CBS News poll (9-10 June 2013, 1,015 interviews) reinforces this idea by pointing out again that the Democrats are divided on the question (48% agree, another 48% disagree), while a clear majority of Independents and Republicans disapprove (62%, 66% respectively).
By comparing these results to the ones obtained in 2006 by Gallup when inquiring over the support for a government program that “obtained records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans”, the 2013 results are in coherence (43% approval, 51% disapproval), whereas the partisan results shifted dramatically for the Democrats (only 40% approved in 2006), Independents (56% approved) and the Republicans (63% approved). This can be explained by the change of the Democrats and Republicans from opposition to power and viceversa, and would suggest that there is no clear doctrine of any of the Parties on this issue, but only ad hoc positions based on whether one trusts the current government.
On the same note, the Gallup poll reveals that most of the Republican voters believe that Ed Snowden did the right thing by leaking the news of the surveillance programmes, while a majority of Democrats believe he acted wrongfully.
The politics behind
Even though each electorate shows a tendency towards a certain stance, its lack of a clear and major leaning is reflected by the divisions existing within the two major American political parties. Thus, the internal factions of each party give in a variety of shades that make reaching a partisan consensus difficult.
From the Republican side, Vice President Dick Cheney (a neoconservative) called Edward Snowden a “traitor”, while Peter King (neoconservative), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee, called for Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong. Mike Rogers (social conservative), the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee also agreed that the programs were important for national security. Republican Senator John McCain (traditionalist, leaning neoconservative) declared to the CNN that the surveillance programs were needed because threats to the US were “growing, not diminishing”, while adding that he believed “that if this was September 12th, 2001, we might not be having the argument that we are having today”. These declarations were made in spite of Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s (traditionalist, author of the Patriot Act) depiction of PRISM as “an abuse of that law”. Furthermore, Republican Senator Rand Paul (constitutional conservative, Tea Party member and a potential 2016 presidential candidate) told “Fox News Sunday” that he would consider a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the mining of phone records, while also questioning the moral authority of President Obama. He was joined in by former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin (also a Tea Party member) who also stood up for Edward Snowden’s actions, while pushing for more protection of personal freedom. If the Tea Party lost some of its momentum since 2010, PRISM might prove to be another clinging point for the advocates for more personal freedom from within the GOP, which could further the cleavage between the neoconservatives and the liberal conservatives.
On the other side of the political spectrum, divisions arise too. Two Democrat senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall (left-wing) appeared worrisome and requested that the government reveal more about its practices in data-gathering. On the contrary, Dianne Feinstein (moderate), the Democrat chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the programmes were “within the law”, that they were part of the government’s obligation of keeping Americans safe, which was something that human intelligence was not going to do. On the same note, President Obama defended the programme through his White House chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, by saying that the “President doesn’t think the program has violated privacy”. To top it all, a bipartisan group of eight senators has introduced legislation that requires the government to detail its understanding of the laws that permit such an extensive surveillance.
Why the division?
First and foremost, as shown above, the division within the American electorate can be explained by political allegiance and the in power/in opposition antagonism which might push towards certain “by default” attitudes. While this would explain the polarization, the slight leaning towards disapproval could be influenced by the decisive bulk of Independents guarding their skepticism towards PRISM.
Nevertheless, without the leadership of the higher ranking representatives which are themselves facing intra-partisan divisions, one can understand why the electorate is still hesitant in forming an overwhelming majority over the issue. After years of leading a “war against terror”, the conservative leaning Americans who agree with the surveillance scheme may embrace the idea that exceptional times demand exceptional measures. Also, what might be regarded as the US government’s “salami tactics”, might have made even the most exceptional measures seem somehow normal and not shocking to those Americans agreeing with them in general terms. From this standpoint, PRISM could and should act like a cold shower that puts the fight against terrorism back into perspective.
Unfortunately, however, it would be too optimistic to believe that the programme will suddenly come to a halt. Most probably PRISM will stir a much needed heated debate, will provoke numerous congressional hearings and, in the best of cases, create a clear majority in the electorate that will demand some limits be put to the surveillance. Nevertheless, once the limits of privacy have been breached, one must not expect miracles either – any downsize of PRISM would look like a success compared to the nowadays breadth of the scheme, but, as long as the programme stays in place, some doubts will always arise as to its methods.