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Views on NSA are complicated

Early headlines emerging from the new Pew/Washington Post poll on the National Security Agency’s surveillance program suggest it is all OK with the American people. 

But that’s not the whole story — nor can we be certain how long that story line will last.

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It’s certainly true that 56 percent find it acceptable for the NSA to get court orders “to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” 

A minority, 4 percent, find such practices “unacceptable.”

Americans also appear to prioritize safety over privacy. 

By 2-to-1, the public says it is more important for “the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy.” 

Just 34 percent believe it’s more important for the federal government “not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.” 

After all, even before the latest revelations, Americans had little expectation of privacy with respect to these records. 

According to an Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll, 85 percent believed it was likely their “communications history, like phone calls, emails, and Internet use” was “available for businesses, government, individuals, and other groups to access without your consent.” 

However, that’s not the end of the public opinion story. 

First, familiarity and contempt are closely correlated. For now, relatively few Americans are familiar with the story. Just about a quarter, 27 percent, are following the issue very closely. 

However, those who are most aware are vastly more hostile to the program. 

Among those following the story, a 55 percent majority calls it “unacceptable.” 

Only the less familiar are more forgiving. 

Whether that’s because familiarity breeds contempt or because the contemptuous are more likely to follow the story is unclear. We don’t know which way the causal arrow points, but it is certainly conceivable that as the media’s bright light shines on the program, awareness and disaffection will grow.

Second, the public does put limits on its willingness to sacrifice civil liberties for national security. (Note: The words “civil liberties” and “privacy” may produce different results.) 

That’s true at a general level. Americans were unwilling “to give up some civil liberties if that were necessary to curb terrorism” by 49 percent to 40 percent in an April CNN poll.

More concretely, the same poll that found a majority supporting the NSA program also revealed majorities saying it would be unacceptable for the government “to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities” to prevent future attacks. 

Similarly, CNN found 59 percent opposed to “expanded government monitoring of cell phones and email” to fight terrorism. 

To be clear, the administration maintains that’s not what is happening. 

But how people construe terms like “monitoring” and whether what’s happening meets the public definition remains to be seen. 

Finally, as I have argued before, political leadership helps shape public opinion. 

When George W. Bush was president, 61 percent of Democrats found an NSA surveillance program unacceptable. 

Today 64 percent of Democrats say it is acceptable.  Seventy-five percent of Republicans found the Bush program acceptable, whereas just 52 percent say that about the current effort. 

Differences in question wording could be the culprit, or it could reflect Democrats’ greater willingness to trust a program overseen by President Obama than one devised by Bush (and vice versa for Republicans). 

But it’s likely at least some of that difference can be attributed to the policy leadership politicians exert. 

Democrats hear their leaders excoriate Bush and respond by finding his program wanting, but they hear Obama defending his and assume it must be OK. 

Interestingly, the current program has brought together strange bedfellows: Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on one side versus Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the other. 

How Americans will sort through these conflicting voices as they learn more about NSA activities is far from certain.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.