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June 07, 2013 3:08 PM Data-Mining and Public Opinion

By Ed Kilgore

Since I raised the distinct possibility earlier today that civil libertarians might over-interpret negative U.S. reactions to the data-mining revelations of the week, let me add this analysis from Josh Barro, who wishes the public cared more about civil liberties than it actually does:

The revelations about massive National Security Agency snooping in Americans’ phone records and Internet activities appear to be shocking, but they aren’t. The reason programs like these exist and persist isn’t that the government keeps them secret. It’s that our lawmakers tell the public they are necessary to achieve a goal of zero terrorism, which might well be true — and the public considers that a good enough reason.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered this very succinct justification for the phone records dragnet, in which Verizon and apparently all the other major cellular providers hand over all subscribers’ phone records to the government: “It’s called protecting America.”
Both the public and politicians have been clear: The goal of policies on terrorism is not just to reduce terrorism deaths but eliminate them altogether. Lately, we’ve been getting pretty close. Over the last five years, Americans’ annual odds of dying in a terror attack have been just 1 in 20 million.

I think Josh would join me in doubting the public reaction to the data-mining revelation will match those of civil libertarians.

But when we do see some public opinion data, it will be important to keep in mind that the “answers” we get will depend even more than is usual on how the questions are framed. References to terrorism will matter, as will the descriptions of the surveillance methods and the use of the captured data.

And without question, references or non-references to the Obama administration, and to other “scandals,” will matter a lot. A lot of conservatives who would have applauded the exact same practices under Bush won’t like them now, particularly if they are linked in poll questions (or in a series of questions) mentioning the IRS “scandal” or Obama DOJ leak investigations. And conversely, a harder-to-anticipate number of Obama supporters won’t care nearly as much about data-mining now as they did (or might have, if it had gotten more attention) under Bush, even though it appears the program didn’t much change.

That’s not totally irrational, since the level of trust you have in a current administration affects how you tend to feel about what “the government” might do with surreptitiously obtained information.

In any event, parsing opinion surveys on this subject will require a level of care that advocates on every side of the subject may consciously or unconsciously resist. Ultimately, of course, public opinion is only marginally relevant to urgent claims of national security or the perpetual claims of the Bill of Rights. But as I always say, you can’t take the politics out of politics.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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