NSA PRISM Program: Surprisingly Few Americans See a Problem With Being Spied On

While condemnation of the NSA media leaks has taken on a bipartisan tone in Washington, with everyone from President Obama to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) united in outrage, a bipartisan majority of normal Americans are also united — but unlike Washington elites, they are united by their support for the media and their disapproval of NSA surveillance.

A Gallup poll published Wednesday revealed that a slim majority of Americans believe the media outlets that published Edward Snowden’s leaks made the right move. Fifty-nine percent of those polled said they agree with the decision made by the Washington Post and The Guardian, while 33 percent disagreed.

While the poll found that Americans generally disapproved of the surveillance programs described in the leak, the margin was considerably smaller. Fifty-three percent disapproved, while 37% approved.

It seems a little surprising that the disapproval rating was so low. Don't Americans cherish their privacy? If so, how could only 53% disapprove of their information being accessed by the government through the sorts of massive dragnets that the Snowden leaks revealed?

From what I’ve read, it seems that Americans who support the NSA programs do so because they believe the programs are necessary to thwart terrorist attacks. Certainly this is the justification given by the NSA. But while the programs may thwart external threats, the implications are troubling nonetheless because they suggest that this need to encroach on our liberties in the name of security will not be going away any time soon. Previously, the threats of the Nazis and then the Communists were used to justify incursions on our civil liberties. Now, the nebulous term “terrorism” is used. And while the threat is quite real, I fear that this threat — unlike that from the Nazis or Communists — is constant. Terrorism will always be a threat someplace in the world, and as such I fear that it can always be used by those in power as an excuse to encroach on our civil liberties.

Of course must strike a balance between liberty and security. But I am still uncomfortable with the government collecting massive amounts of data without a warrant. And I’m not entirely sure it doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment.

James Madison once wrote, "If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Clearly, this would be an overstatement if applied to today’s America. But the point remains: Security concerns are being used to encroach on our cherished liberties.

The fact that only 53% of Americans see a problem with that is disconcerting, to say the least. 

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Michael Shammas

Second-year Harvard Law student, politico, Breaking Bad fan, cynical idealist, coffee addict, & Duke sports fanatic. Contact me at mshammas@jd16.law.harvard.edu.

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