Cybersnooping was always scheduled to be an important topic during President Obama’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We just didn't know until recently that it might be a chance for the two men to exchange best practices. The Chinese government is accused of stealing U.S. military secrets and hacking into the computer networks of American companies. Recent reports suggest the U.S. government may be hacking into the servers of American companies as well.
In processing news developments in Obama’s second term, the most useful sorting technique for the last few weeks has been to ask: Is this a scandal, a controversy, or merely a flap? The substantive answer in this case is that these revelations about U.S. spy efforts deserve real attention. When officials in the executive branch are given this kind of power, they usually abuse it. That is our history. That's human nature. That is particularly true when there are weak or nonexistent mechanisms to restrain that abuse. The political answer about how important these revelations may be is different. We are simultaneously in the season of high scandal and high fake scandal, but at the moment the political risks seem slim for the president and anyone who supports the National Security Agency's snooping power. For that to change, voters would have to stop giving the executive branch a pass whenever a possible government overreach is done for the sake of fighting terrorism.
Polls suggest that people often support measures to catch terrorists that infringe on civil liberties. In a New York Times/CBS poll taken after the Boston Marathon bombing, 78 percent of people said surveillance cameras were a good idea. A CNN poll taken a month later showed the same support for cameras, but that poll indicated that there were limits. People were asked if they would allow "expanded government monitoring of cell phones and email to intercept communications" to catch suspected terrorists. Fifty-nine percent said they would not be OK with that.
The disclosure this week that the NSA was monitoring huge numbers of phone calls made in the Verizon network is operationally very similar to the disclosure in 2006 that it was doing the same thing. In 2006, people were mostly comfortable with the idea. A Fox News poll found a small majority, 52 percent, supported the collection of massive amounts of phone data, and 41 percent opposed it. CBS, ABC, and CNN polls at the same time also found majority support, but a Newsweek poll found that 53 percent said that monitoring metadata goes too far. (The fact that the Bush administration, unpopular at the time, had collected the phone information without court approval or without notifying Congress could have influenced these numbers; that's not the case here.)
Update, June 11, 2013: Since this piece was published, the first polls have come out evaluating public opinion about the NSA’s activities. It turns out the public is even more supportive of snooping than they were in 2006, when the agency's collection of metadata was first discovered. According to a Washington Post-Pew Research poll, 56 percent of Americans consider the NSA accessing telephone records of millions of Americans “acceptable,” while 41 percent call the practice “unacceptable.” What has changed is the partisan makeup of who holds which position. In this poll, 69 percent of Democrats say terrorism investigations, not privacy, should be the government’s main concern, an 18-percentage-point jump from early January 2006, when the NSA’s activity under the George W. Bush administration was first reported. Compared with that time, Republicans’ focus on privacy has increased 22 points.
Polling suggests the distinction people draw is between the narrow targeting of suspects versus targeting the broader public. In 2006, when CBS asked people if they would be OK with phone surveillance if the government thought they had a suspect, 69 percent approved. If the surveillance was just a sweep of ordinary Americans? Sixty-eight percent opposed that. Five years later, CBS found roughly the same result. In 2011, 65 percent of those polled said they were willing to let government agencies monitor telephone calls and emails of suspicious people, but when asked about a broader phone snooping “of ordinary Americans on a regular basis" 72 percent said they would disapprove of such surveillance.
So support for the activities recently disclosed lies in whether people think they’re a big fishing expedition or tied to specific work that has stopped terrorism.
It's almost certain that we won't know for sure whether these ongoing surveillance efforts paid off in a way that connects them with specific terrorist suspects. Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee says they did. (Reuters has reported the attack Rep. Rogers was referring to was aimed at the New York City subway.) Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said the surveillance had foiled several terrorist plots. Reports that the monitoring of computer systems has provided the bulk of the information in the president’s daily intelligence briefing are likely to make people think that this is useful information worth gathering.
Republican leaders who have jumped on each new development in the IRS or Benghazi scandals have been nearly mute in response to these latest disclosures. Republican Sen. Rand Paul spoke out against the program, but his colleague Sen. Marco Rubio defended it. Without a strong political force to keep pushing this story, it's unlikely to stay in the public consciousness in a way that will be politically damaging.
If the public is not outraged, it may very well be because they trust these lawmakers when they say these measures are necessary to stop terrorism. That's an aberration from the normal public attitude where more than three-quarters of Americans tell pollsters they don't trust government. It’s the exact opposite of what has happened in the IRS investigation. Any Democrat who suggests the extra IRS scrutiny of conservative groups was warranted will find himself sitting alone on the bench.
These latest revelations do expose President Obama and Vice President Biden as having highly malleable views. As a candidate, Barack Obama was righteous in denouncing Bush-era policies, saying they jeopardized the rights and ideals of all Americans and that there was not sufficient congressional oversight. He criticized the president for monitoring Americans who did nothing wrong. Biden can be seen here in 2006 pounding on President Bush for collecting phone records indiscriminately. But if Americans believe these programs are part of a long-standing (successful) effort to thwart a major terrorist attack on American soil, it's unclear whether there will be any penalty to pay for the change of heart.
The other controversies in Washington appear to have weakened the public’s view of the president’s honesty. That may be because his answers have been unsatisfying. He learned about the IRS mishap and Justice Department targeting journalists on the news. That may have been proper—he has direct control over neither—but polls show his disconnection has contributed to the view he’s not being honest. In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, administration answers have been fuzzy and evolving. In this case, though, the president supported the NSA activities as soon as the news broke. Since polls show the public trusts him on the issue of fighting terrorism above all other issues, his fast and forceful defense may cause people to give him the benefit of the doubt. In a perverse way it’s even possible to imagine that the NSA revelations, by stealing a few news cycles from developments on the IRS investigation and allowing the president to present himself as protector of the American people, may wind up helping the president's standing with the American people. Not even the NSA saw that coming.