After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that killed over three thousand people when planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Americans were more than willing to give up civil liberties if it meant it would be easier for the government to fight the “war on terrorism.” This allowed for the government to expand its surveillance powers to an unprecedented degree, including through legislation like the PATRIOT Act.
Americans accepted, even if there were abuses of authority occurring, if a person had nothing to hide, it did not matter. They were also willing to grant the government powers to fight terrorism in total secrecy.
Twelve years since the attacks, this predominant mindset, which not only enables abuse but also authoritarianism in government, is declining. Polls are showing that Americans are no longer as supportive of massive surveillance put in place after the attacks. And former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden is mostly responsible for this major shift in views.
From June to August, The Guardian and other news outlets have been publishing stories with documents from Snowden that show the NSA has been collecting and storing the cell phone records of all American customers of telecommunications companies. They show the NSA has operated a program called PRISM that allows the NSA to have access to the servers of companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others. The PRISM program makes it possible for the NSA to “collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.”
These stories and others, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research study on the public’s views on civil liberties and security released yesterday, have had a great impact.
The partnered organizations conducted interviews with a “representative sample” of 1,008 Americans and found that a “majority of Americans (56 percent) oppose a policy that allows the government to collect telephone records for calls made in the United States, including those calls made by US citizens, for potential use in future investigations, while 32 percent favor such a policy.”
“Similarly,” the study found, “a majority of Americans (54 percent) oppose a policy that allows the government to collect data on internet usage in the United States, including usage by US citizens, for potential use in future investigations, while 34 percent favor such a policy.”
Furthermore, “fifty-five percent of Americans oppose government collection of email addresses, chat usernames, or
other information used to identify who people are communicating with online, while 30 percent favor this type of data collection. Six in 10 (61 percent) oppose government collection of the content of online communications, such as texts of emails, chat histories, or recordings of video chats, while 26 percent favor this type of data collection.”
Snowden’s whistleblowing has also put focus on the secret surveillance court known as the FISA court, which is supposed to review and authorize applications from the NSA for electronic surveillance. Top secret documents have shown how, even when the NSA is conducting surveillance on foreign targets, it can still collect, retain and use the communications of Americans. Glenn Greenwald also comprehensively wrote about the court and how it is a “secret and empty process” that does little to prevent abuses by the NSA of its powers. (Note: At the moment, additional documents from the FISA court have been released pursuant to a court order as well.)
The survey by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that “a majority of Americans disapprove of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the process by which the government gets approval for its telephone and internet surveillance programs.” Only “12 percent of Americans favor the process in which a federal court, whose proceedings are classified and where no attorney is present to argue against the government’s case, controls the U.S. government’s ability to analyze the information it collects on telephone and internet communications, and 59 percent oppose it.”
Only 16 percent of all people in the survey said they approved of the “court’s decision to allow the government to collect and keep records on internet and telephone usage by Americans. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said they disapproved.
There is no party before the court who makes a case against surveillance in favor of civil liberties. The court hears one side, the government, when authorizing surveillance.
Sixty-eight percent of Americans said they would “moderately or strongly favor the appointment of an attorney to argue against the government in the classified proceedings before the federal court that decides whether the government gets permission to analyze the information it has collected.”
It found that Americans were surveyed were pretty much split (51% in favor) on the idea that it was “more important to keep the details of US intelligence operations secret even if the government is accused of violating civil rights.” However, 63 percent of Americans under 30 were believed the US government had to prove its intelligence operations were not violating civil rights.
Additionally, given the extent that President Barack Obama, his administration and various members of Congress have gone to argue Snowden is not a whistleblower, this result from the survey is remarkable:
A majority of Americans say that a person in possession of classified government information is justified in revealing that information if it shows that the government is engaged in illegal or illicit activities. Sixty-one percent of Americans say that a person’s illegal release of classified government information is justified if it shows that the government broke the law. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say release of the material is justified if the information shows that the government violated U.S. citizens’ civil rights, and 58 percent feel it is justified if it shows the government misused money. Fifty-five percent of Americans say that illegal release is justified if the information shows that the government acted solely due to political considerations or that the government said one thing publicly but did another thing secretly.
Members of Congress like ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, have invoked the September 11th attacks and argued the “authorities have been instrumental in helping prevent dozens of terrorist attacks, many on US soil.” Officials like NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed, “In recent years these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent the terrorist — the potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11.” And officials like FBI deputy director Sean Joyce have said, “I go back to we need to remember what happened in 9/11, and everyone in this room remembers where they were and what happened,” to defend against criticism around what Snowden exposed.
Today, former Secretary of Homeland Security and chairman of the Chertoff Group, which has profited off selling body scanners to the Transportation Security Administration, defended NSA surveillance in a USA TODAY op-ed on the 9/11 anniversary, “This enemy is different. They disguise themselves as civilians and exploit our very own transportation infrastructure and communication networks against us.”
None of the above has been able to convince a majority of Americans not to be concerned about what Snowden revealed, perhaps, because Americans know now with certainty the US government collects information that has no connection and will never have any connection to any terrorist investigations.
Though it had become more difficult for officials to cite 9/11 to maintain support for a policy, program or military operation, Snowden’s act of whistleblowing has effectively stripped government officials of the ability to rely on the memory of 9/11 and the fear of another 9/11-type attack to excuse, continue and keep concealed abuses of surveillance powers.
“Less than half (43 percent) of 2013 respondents who feel they lost some freedom to the war on terror” now think “it was necessary.” That is down from 53 percent in 2011. Stunningly, 60 percent of Americans “think that, on balance, they will probably lose more freedoms than they will gain” in the next 10 years.
Americans may not believe their government will be giving them back freedoms or civil liberties lost any time soon, but, twelve years since 9/11, many are reconsidering the decision to ever allow government to infringe upon them and shift the (im)balance between civil liberties and security in the first place.