America to Obama: We?re Not Listening

Jan 22 2014

By ANDREW ROSENTHAL* – Editorial, The New York Times

President Obama has come before the American people so many times now to promise transparency, declare his respect for civil rights and privacy, and vow to create a rational policy on government spying, that no one seems to be listening anymore.

Last Friday, Mr. Obama announced some important, but inadequate, measures to curb the out-of-control electronic surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden?s leaks. On Monday, the Pew Research Center released the results of a poll conducted before, on the day of, and after Mr. Obama?s speech.

To start, only about half of those surveyed said they had even heard of Mr. Obama?s promised changes to the National Security Agency?s domestic and international spying programs. Only about 8 percent said they knew a lot about them.

From there it gets worse. Pew asked those who said they knew about the proposed changes if they thought they would increase privacy protections ? and 73 percent said no. They also said, by a margin of 79 percent to 13 percent, that the changes would not make it more difficult for the government to fight terrorism.

Whatever Americans think about the N.S.A., the president?s speeches don?t seem to be reaching them anymore. Pew noted that: ?overall approval of the program and opinions about whether adequate safeguards are in place were no different in three nights of interviewing conducted after the speech (Jan. 17-19) than during the two nights of interviewing conducted prior to the address (Jan. 15-16).?

One might assume that if Americans are tuning out the president on this subject, it?s because their views are already set in stone, or because they simply don?t care. But neither of those possibilities seems to true. Over the last few months, public opinion of the N.S.A. has shifted:

Today, 40% approve of the government?s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 53% disapprove. In July, more Americans approved (50%) than disapproved (44%) of the program.

In addition, nearly half (48%) say there are not adequate limits on what telephone and internet data the government can collect; fewer (41%) say there are adequate limits on the government?s data collection.

Finally, the Pew poll showed that a majority, 56 percent, thinks the government should pursue a criminal case against Edward Snowden. But a plurality, 45 percent, thinks Mr. Snowden?s leaks served the public interest. On that point, our editorial board agrees.

*Times?s editorial page editor

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