ACLU poll: Majority opposes telecom immunity plan
ACLU poll released as Senate tackles FISA updates shows voters' opposition to Bush proposals
Majorities of voters on both sides of the political spectrum oppose key provisions in President Bush's proposal to modify foreign surveillance laws that could ensnare Americans, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The survey shows nearly two-thirds of poll respondents say the government should be required to get an individual warrant before listening in on conversations between US citizens and people abroad. Close to six in 10 people oppose an administration proposal to allow intelligence agencies to seek "blanket warrants" that would let them eavesdrop of foreigners for up to a year no additional judicial oversight required if the foreign suspect spoke to an American. And a majority are against a plan to give legal immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping.
"Across the board, we find opposition to the administration's FISA agenda," pollster Mark Mellman said Tuesday.
The poll of 1,000 likely voters was released by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is lobbying Congress to reject Bush's blanket warrant and telecom immunity proposals.
"We know that the American public realizes that this is an atrocious piece of legislation," the ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson said, referring to a bill before the Senate that gives the administration much of what it wants. Fredrickson and Mellman spoke to reporters Tuesday on a conference call before the Senate gets ready to revisit the FISA update.
Congress has been debating FISA legislation since passing a temporary measure in August that was aimed at closing a loophole that required the National Security Agency to get a FISA court warrant before listening to purely foreign communications. Critics said that bill, the Protect America Act, provided too few judicial protections, although some of the fiercest battles in the latest legislative fight have centered around the immunity proposal.
The Senate is considering extending the PAA, which expires Feb. 1, for another month while Democratic leaders seek compromise on the legislation. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), who exited the presidential race this month, led opposition to the bill in December and succeeded in temporarily blocking telecom immunity.
Fredrickson said the ACLU is supporting efforts from Dodd and others like Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to strip immunity from the bill, and she said the organization has been in touch with the major presidential campaigns.
Both remaining Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have said they oppose telecom immunity, and Democrats feel a monthlong extension of the FISA debate would allow the candidates to refocus on the Senate after a slew of major presidential primaries Feb. 5.
President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to warrantlessly wiretap Americans communicating with suspects abroad after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, initiating a program that operated outside the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a 1978 law governing surveillance activities. Critics say Bush and the NSA began working to subvert FISA even before 9/11.
The Mellman Group survey was conducted Jan. 11-15 and was limited to those likely to vote in this year's presidential election. The polling firm conducted a study that produced similar results in October.
Sixty-three percent said the government should get an individual warrant before listening to a US citizen's phone call with someone abroad, and 58 percent said they opposed "blanket warrants."
Pollsters also presented arguments for individual warrants versus blanket warrants and found a strong preference for individual warrants; 66 percent agreed with this assessment:
Some say Congress should keepthe traditional requirement that the government get an individual warrant for each American citizen whose phone calls or emails they want to wiretap instead of getting warrants to spy on whole groups of Americans at once. They say the Fourth Amendment requiresthe government to get a warrant in each case by proving probable cause to an independent judge. But the blanketwarrant allows the government to spy on whole groups of American citizens with no judicial review of the individual circumstances in each case.
Conversely, just 26 percent supported blanket warrants when presented with this argument:
Others say Congress should set up a system that allows the government to get a blanket warrant for a year to conduct crucial wiretaps on terrorists communicating with individuals inthe United States. They say that the courts will still be involved and that giving the government this authority is critical to keeping America safe. They say Congress should not bog down intelligence agencies with administrative burdens by giving terrorists rights.
The poll also found 57 percent of likely voters opposed telecom immunity, compared to just a third who supported it.
Fredrickson said the poll demonstrated that the voters are behind the Democrats, and she called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to do more to stand up to the Bush administration.
"If he really opposes telecom immunity he has to do more than say it," she said. "He has to show it."
Although the ACLU has mounted a PR and advertising offensive to fight telecom immunity and other perceived abuses, Fredrickson said activists still face an uphill battle, despite the nearly nonexistent public presence of telecoms and others who favor immunity.
Even if the public isn't seeing them, the telecoms message is being delivered in the corridors of power, she said.
"They tend to favor dark rooms, martinis and cigars," she said of lobbyists representing the massive corporations.