Poll: Back off the snooping, public tells Washington

David Lightman

Americans are fed up with the federal government collecting information on their phone calls, emails and Internet use, and they want curbs on what can be monitored, majorities say in a new McClatchy-Marist poll.

The July 15-18 survey also found widespread opposition to the Insider Threat Program revealed in a recent McClatchy story, a sweeping, unprecedented Obama administration initiative that has federal employees and contractors watching for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers.

“Privacy still counts, and federal employees snooping on each other, that’s out of bounds,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the poll.

The poll’s findings come as the House of Representatives considers defunding National Security Agency programs that collect telephone and other data. An unusual coalition of liberals and conservatives, concerned about the reach of an ever-intrusive government, is behind the effort.

The proposal is contained in a massive defense spending bill and is unlikely to ultimately survive. Senate leaders and the White House are opposed, and intelligence officials have been lobbying furiously all week against the move.

The Insider Threat Program is laid out in documents reviewed recently by McClatchy that showed some agencies are using the authority to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any data, not only classified material. McClatchy also found that millions of federal employees and contractors are being told to watch for suspicious activity among co-workers.

Failing to report such behavior could mean serious penalties, including criminal charges, and leaks to the media are equated with espionage.

Enough, says the public. By a 2-to-1 margin, they declared that having federal employees track each other is going too far. The strong concern crosses all party lines, age, race and income groups.

Fifty-six percent of the 1,204 adults surveyed thought the government had gone too far in its collection of personal data, while a third said the effort was needed. Seventy percent want regulations to limit what can be monitored to protect privacy, while more than a quarter regard the programs as part of life in the digital age.

The poll did have some good news for President Barack Obama, whose poll numbers have sunk this month. Slightly more than half approved of his handling of homeland security and anti-terrorism programs, while 38 percent did not.

“People feel he draws lines in the sand where he needs to,” said Miringoff. “This has been an area where people still see him providing significant strength.”

There was little support, though, for Edward Snowden, the national security contractor who triggered the secret surveillance program uproar with his leaks to the media last month. Fifty-five percent said they had an unfavorable impression of the Snowden, who remains a man without a country, apart from the U.S., which wants him back. He has been stuck at the transit zone of a Moscow airport, seeking temporary asylum in Russia.

About half saw him as a whistleblower, while 38 percent regarded him as a traitor.

“The argument that he was aiding the enemy does not come through as strongly,” Miringoff said.

Snowden gets virtually no sympathy among Washington lawmakers.

“What Snowden has done borders on treason, and I believe he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a Senate Intelligence Committee member.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a member of the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees, said that Snowden “must stand up under the laws of this nation.”

Lawmakers who want to block the NSA snooping programs insist they’re reflecting the view of the public.

“It’s about the American people versus the elites in Washington,’’ said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., one of the bill’s chief sponsors.

Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, “There’s nothing wrong at all about taking a look at these programs. We need as much transparency as possible.”

Clarification: This updated version of the article replaces the word “snooping” in the first paragraph with “collecting information" to clarify that the NSA is collecting metadata, not content.

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By David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau