Presidential Powers, NSA Spying, and the War on Terrorism: Americans’ Attitudes on Recent Events - Overview

February 24, 2006
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A majority of American voters reject the idea that the President has the power to act without the check of the courts and Congress to fight terrorism. Majorities disapprove of recent actions the government has engaged in to fight terrorism, and two-thirds believe changes are needed to the USA Patriot Act.

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These are the findings of a recent national survey of 1,012 registered voters that Belden Russonello & Stewart conducted for the ACLU from February 8 through 12, 2006. The margin of sampling error for the entire survey is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% level of tolerance.

When given a choice, voters are more likely to want Congress to "demand that the warrantless eavesdropping be stopped because it is illegal" (55%) than to "not question the eavesdropping as long as the President says he needs it to keep us safe" (39%).

Voters are also concerned about the Patriot Act. As Congress debates the future of the Patriot Act, two-thirds of voters who have heard of the Act (66%) believe "some changes need to be made" while only two in ten (20%) say it should be made "permanent." Attitudes on the Patriot Act cross political party divides with Democrats (79% make changes), Independents (76%), as well as Republicans (50% make changes; 36% make permanent) saying changes need to be made.

Download the full report and survey results

The survey reveals the following points on American voters' attitudes toward Presidential powers and government actions since 9/11:

  • Six in ten (60%) say "the President should not be acting on his own in deciding how to fight terrorism without the checks and balances of the courts or Congress," while less than four in ten (38%) believe the President "should have the power to take whatever actions he believes are necessary to protect the country from terrorists."
  • A majority of voters oppose the government eavesdropping on Americans' calls to people overseas without a court warrant (54% disapprove; 44% approve).
  • Americans are more likely to support NSA eavesdropping when it is asserted the calls are with individuals overseas and could lead to catching terrorists (57% approve; 41% disapprove). However, majorities of voters are skeptical that the President needs the power to eavesdrop without a court warrant and that he acted within the law:
    • When asked to choose a majority (63%) express the view that the President can "effectively combat terrorism and follow the law and get court warrants to spy on Americans" while less than a third (33%) says "the President needs the ability to eavesdrop on Americans without a court warrant to fight against terrorism."
    • Voters are more likely to disbelieve the President when he says he "operated within the law and Constitution when authorizing eavesdropping without court warrants" than to believe he followed the law (51% to 43%).
    • An even larger majority rejects the President's claim that Congress gave him the authority to eavesdrop. Six in ten (61%) believe the President is wrong to assume that "the Congressional resolution to go to war in Afghanistan to fight terrorism also gave him permission to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant."
  • Majorities of voters disapprove of many other government actions taken in the name of fighting terrorism. Specifically, they disapprove of:
    • Secret searches of individuals' homes without telling them (82%; 70% strongly);
    • Government-sanctioned torture (79%; 65% strongly);
    • Requiring librarians to provide the names of individuals and the books they have read (64%; 47% strongly); and
    • Indefinitely holding of detainees in Guantanamo (57%; 35% strongly).
  • While there is a partisan divide on these issues, it is not as wide as some, and opposition to the President's policies cannot be explained as simply anti-Bush. At least a third of Republican voters consistently express viewpoints in the survey that show they are concerned that the President is operating outside the law. We find: half of the Republicans (50%) who have heard about the Patriot Act think it needs changes rather than permanency; over a third of Republicans oppose the President's policies of indefinite detention at Guantanamo (36%) and do not want the President acting on his own without regard to Congress or the Courts when he is combating terrorism (36%).
  • Throughout the survey voters who express the most concern about the President's actions to fight terrorism include African-American voters, younger voters (18 to 29), and those with high levels of education.

Download the full report and survey results >>

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