Always ask for _all_ the poll information. You might think, reading this headline from the Washington Post, that the main news story resulting from its recent poll is that most Americans are now freaked out by the NSA and bullish on punishing Snowden. (Those of you who read what I post here often know that I think that’s exactly backwards – I think the NSA’s surveillance is generally reasonable and not a serious threat to privacy, and that Snowden’s revelations are generally not of important state secrets and thus, if he is punished at all, it should only be a small pro forma punishment for having violated his oath as someone with a security clearance.)
But there is a part of this poll not very well summarised by this headline. The Post asked poll respondents this question: “What do you think is more important right now – for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes upon personal privacy; or for the federal government not to intrude upon personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats?”
57% said it was more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats. 39% said it was more important for the government not to intrude upon personal privacy.
The answer to that question still makes it sound like the NSA still has a mandate…and it doesn’t sound very much like one would expect reading this article’s headline. So what gives?
The Guardian, which employs Glenn Greenwald, recently trumpeted another part of the Washington Post poll…check out http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/24/white-house-congress-amendment-nsa-surveillance for the article in which they did this. Interestingly, they chose _not_ to focus on the 57% who think stopping terrorism is more important than privacy protection in a hierarchy of values. Instead, they focused on the 74% who think the NSA is violating “some Americans’ privacy rights” and the 49% who believe their own privacy rights are being violated.
Most likely they did this because The Guardian has a lot invested right now in the Greenwald narrative. But don’t we want to get to the bottom of why a large majority can believe it’s still more important to pursue terrorists, even if a larger majority thinks the NSA is violating privacy rights?
It could be that Americans just know to rally-round-the-flag any time someone says “terrorism”, admittedly. It could also be, however, that Americans understand that rights are being balanced here, and that means accepting that something which would otherwise be a right ought not to be protected, in the name of observing a more important right.
The idea most Americans seem to have that Edward Snowden did violate some laws and probably should see the inside of a jail suggests that most do not buy into the myth that he is a “whistleblower”, however much The Guardian might like to play it that way. 53% support him going to jail, though only 22% argue that he compromised US national security “a great deal”, while 27% argued he compromised it only “somewhat”. (Presumably that means 4% out of the 37% who thought he caused “no harm” must think he should go to jail just because he broke his oath as someone with a security clearance…which is about where I am on the matter.)
The one thing that is most telling about the Washington Post poll, however, is how radically it is changing. The Post has been asking the terrorism vs. privacy question since 2002, and has charted the responses over time. There has been a steady increase in the numbers for the “privacy” side and against the “terrorism” side since Obama took office, and the numbers for the “privacy” side have jacked up within the last surveyed month – pretty obviously in response to l’affaire Snowden.
That shows, as I have been arguing now for the past couple months, that the Obama Administration is losing the battle for public opinion on this topic, if its goal is to convince people that protection against terrorism requires some modest incursions into what otherwise would be considered rights of personal privacy. Indeed, it has been losing that battle spectacularly this last couple months. It’s hard not to read those numbers and not attribute them more to Obama’s poor response to the Snowden/Greenwald follies than Americans really changing their minds on the issue.
What the Obama Administration continues to ignore is how much the “privacy debate” is a Trojan horse, and how the enemies of his administration will use this debate to defeat it and ground all its other initiatives. Even if the Obama Admnistration doesn’t consider this a priority, they will have to accept it as one, because this can stop all the things they _do_ consider priorities.
Using the apt acronym of Joe Biden…this is a BFD. It’s high time it was taken to be one.