Obama Reaches Almost No One With NSA Speech

Seventy-three percent of those who watched the president’s major policy speech outlining specific NSA reforms thought his proposals won’t make much difference in protecting privacy.

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency (NSA) and intelligence agencies surveillance techniques at the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, January 17, 2014.
National Journal
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Dustin Volz
Jan. 21, 2014, 5:03 a.m.

Amer­ica greeted Pres­id­ent Obama’s speech last week an­noun­cing re­forms to the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams with col­lect­ive in­dif­fer­ence and broad skep­ti­cism, ac­cord­ing to to a new wide-ran­ging Pew Re­search Cen­ter/USA Today poll.

The poll, sur­vey­ing 1,504 adults Jan. 15-19, found that 53 per­cent of re­spond­ents dis­ap­prove of the gov­ern­ment’s bulk col­lec­tion of In­ter­net and tele­phone metadata, mark­ing the first time in Pew’s his­tory of track­ing the ques­tion that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans said they op­posed sweep­ing data col­lec­tion. Forty per­cent said they ap­proved of the pro­grams.

Equally start­ling is just how few Amer­ic­ans paid at­ten­tion to Obama. Fifty per­cent of re­spond­ents didn’t hear any­thing about Obama’s pro­pos­als, and an­oth­er 41 per­cent said they heard just a little. Taken to­geth­er, those num­bers show more than nine in 10 Amer­ic­ans mus­ter­ing little in­terest in what Obama had to say fol­low­ing six months of leaks and policy de­bate that con­sumed Wash­ing­ton in the second half of 2013.

Of the half of Amer­ic­ans who heard either a lot or little about the NSA changes, only 21 per­cent said they be­lieved the changes would in­crease pri­vacy pro­tec­tions. Al­most three in four — 73 per­cent — said they ex­pec­ted the re­forms to make little dif­fer­ence to pri­vacy. Thir­teen per­cent said they are wor­ried the changes will make it harder to fight ter­ror­ism.

The fact that half of those sur­veyed heard ab­so­lutely noth­ing about the ma­jor policy speech was partly self in­flic­ted by the ad­min­is­tra­tion, as Obama chose to de­liv­er it on a Fri­day morn­ing be­fore a hol­i­day week­end.

Demo­crats, Re­pub­lic­ans, and in­de­pend­ents all re­gistered lower ap­prov­al rat­ings of the gov­ern­ment’s data sweeps than in June 2013, when de­tails of the NSA’s pro­grams began to emerge in ma­jor pub­lic­a­tions around the world. As be­fore, Demo­crats re­main the most sup­port­ive group, with 46 per­cent say­ing they ap­prove of the ef­forts, but that num­ber has fallen 12 per­cent since June. Just 37 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans and 38 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents said they ap­proved.

Also note­worthy is the demo­graph­ic makeup of the fall­ing sup­port. Blacks and His­pan­ics both notched 60 per­cent ap­prov­al of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance back in June, but those groups now re­gister 43 per­cent and 40 per­cent, re­spect­ively. Whites, on the oth­er hand, have pos­ted a much smal­ler de­cline, from 44 per­cent in June to 39 per­cent today.

Opin­ions re­main di­vided on Ed­ward Snowden, the former gov­ern­ment con­tract­or who handed over a massive trove of top-secret doc­u­ments about the NSA’s sur­veil­lance activ­it­ies to se­lect journ­al­ists last June. Forty-five per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say his leaks have served pub­lic in­terest, but 43 per­cent be­lieve Snowden has harmed it. What’s worse for open-gov­ern­ment act­iv­ists is that 56 per­cent say the gov­ern­ment should pur­sue a crim­in­al case against Snowden, fur­ther sig­nal­ing that the fu­git­ive’s clem­ency hopes re­main ex­traordin­ar­ily un­likely.

Obama enu­mer­ated a series of changes to the way the NSA will col­lect and store tele­phone metadata last Fri­day. Among the re­forms, the NSA will no longer main­tain own­er­ship of the hun­dreds of mil­lions of phone re­cords col­lec­ted from vir­tu­ally all Amer­ic­ans. Those re­cords will in­stead by kept either by private phone com­pan­ies or some oth­er as-yet-un­defined third party, and Obama pledged to have a solu­tion in the com­ing months. Ad­di­tion­ally, Obama said all searches of data would now re­quire ju­di­cial ap­prov­al and out­lined nar­row­ing search au­thor­ity. Largely un­spe­cified re­stric­tions on sur­veil­lance of Amer­ic­an al­lies were also prom­ised.

Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates and civil-liber­ties groups ap­plauded many of the changes but im­me­di­ately began clam­or­ing for more pro­tec­tions. Sev­er­al law­makers in­dic­ated plans to con­tin­ue pur­su­ing le­gis­la­tion that would co­di­fy re­stric­tions on NSA sur­veil­lance.

House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, a Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an, said his com­mit­tee would hold a hear­ing “in the com­ing weeks” to in­spect Obama’s re­com­mend­a­tions, as well as those from his re­view group and the Pri­vacy and Civil Liber­ties Over­sight Board.

Pew’s poll had a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3 per­cent­age points.

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