Americans overwhelmingly support aggressive government pursuit of terrorist threats, even if it may infringe on personal privacy, but they divide sharply along partisan lines over the legitimacy of President Bush's program of domestic eavesdropping without court authorization, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Nearly two in three Americans surveyed said they believe that federal agencies involved in anti-terrorism activities are intruding on the personal privacy of their fellow citizens, but fewer than a third said such intrusions are unjustified.
At the same time, however, those surveyed are more narrowly divided over whether the federal government is doing enough to protect the rights of both citizens and terrorism suspects.
Republicans offer far greater support for actions directly attributed to the Bush administration in the campaign against terrorism than do Democrats, who worry that the president will go too far and ignore civil liberties.
But the broad issue of protecting the country vs. preserving personal privacy splits each party's coalition, according to the poll. Some Democrats are willing to support tough anti-terrorism policies at the expense of personal privacy, and some Republicans fear that individual rights may be compromised.
Revelations last month about Bush's program of warrantless electronic surveillance of conversations between the United States and foreign countries have heightened interest in the trade-offs involved in the fight against terrorism. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the president authorized a program that overrode requirements that the government seek approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before listening in on overseas telephone conversations or reading U.S. citizens' e-mail.
Critics have accused the administration of breaking the law in pursuing the domestic spying program, but the president has defended it, saying that it is necessary to protect Americans and that it is lawful and consistent with the Constitution. Congress has signaled its intention to hold hearings to investigate the program.
So far, recent disclosures about domestic spying have not hurt Bush's public standing. According to the poll, his job approval rating stands at 46 percent, down one percentage point from last month.
Most Americans said they have paid close attention to the controversy over the program, and a bare majority of those surveyed, 51 percent, said it is an acceptable way to fight terrorism, while 47 percent said it is not. Beneath those overall findings, however, were sharp partisan divisions.
Split along party lines
Among Republicans, 75 percent said the Bush program is acceptable, while 61 percent of Democrats said it is unacceptable. Independents called the program unacceptable by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.
More generally, two in three Americans said it is more important to investigate possible terrorist threats than to protect civil liberties. One-third said the respect for privacy should take precedence.
Republicans overwhelmingly favored aggressive investigation, with more than four in five saying that is their preference, while Democrats were split 51 percent to 47 percent on which should take precedence. Independents favored relatively unfettered pursuit of possible terrorism by nearly 2 to 1.
Democrats and Republicans were at odds over how Bush is striking the balance between counterterrorism and privacy protection. Two in three Republicans said they worried that concerns about rights would stop the president from being aggressive enough, while three in five Democrats worried that he would compromise rights.
Similarly, Republicans were less likely than Democrats and independents to say that federal agencies are trampling on civil liberties. Even among the 50 percent of Republicans who said they believe such actions were taking place, few said the intrusions are unjustified.
The poll found Americans divided over how the federal government is dealing with protecting the rights of both citizens and suspected terrorists in the post-Sept. 11 environment.
A plurality said they believe the government has struck the right balance in protecting rights. But a sizable percentage, about four in 10 in each case, said the government is not doing enough.
A total of 1,001 randomly selected adults were interviewed Jan. 5 to 8 for this survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.