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Poll: Americans want curbs on surveillance

Jul 26, 2013 - By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- 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 engaged in a fierce debate Wednesday over -- and ultimately rejected -- a plan to restrict 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, backed the effort, which fell just short.

The proposal was to be part of a massive defense spending bill. Senate leaders and the White House were opposed, and intelligence officials had lobbied 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 just 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.

2-1 margin

Enough, says the public. By a 2-to-1 margin, poll respondents 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 survey's respondents 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," Miringoff said. "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 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.

Whistle-blower of traitor?

About half saw him as a whistle-blower, 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."

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The survey of 1,204 adults was conducted July 15-18. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were then combined and balanced to reflect the 2010 census results for age, gender, income, race and region. Results are statistically significant within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

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