How Americans Got Used To Surveillance

The American public was OK with surveilling Muslim citizens in 2006, and liberal New Yorkers were fine with it in 2012. Now they’re complaining.

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Louis Lanzano, File / AP

The last detailed new revelation of a domestic surveillance program came on December 16, 2005, when the New York Times published an article it had held, at the Bush Administration’s request, for months: “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.”

The public reacted with a shrug: It was the age of terror, and the program was directed at monitoring specific terror suspects. “Americans Taking Abramoff, Alito and Domestic Spying in Stride,” was the headline on the Pew Poll in January of 2006.

There was good reason to think even then — as Glenn Greenwald conclusively reported Wednesday, more than seven years later — that the National Security Agency is scooping up pretty much all of our phone calls. And there was good political reason that the government has fought so hard to keep that program — widely enough known that one imagines professional terrorists are on to it — secret. That same Pew Poll that found Americans blase about investigations without warrants also found:

As has been the case since shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of the government monitoring their phone calls, emails and credit card purchases. By about three-to-one (73%-24%) the public opposes allowing government surveillance of their personal phone calls and emails. This measure has changed very little since September 2001, just after the attacks, when 70% opposed government monitoring of private communications.

Last March, after the 9/11 moment had passed, the Associated Pressturned up a different domestic spying program: The New York Police Department had been infiltrating the homes, businesses, and communities of New Yorkers of Muslim descent without, it appeared, any specific cause. The NYPD denials, and subsequent leaked documents, made the story worse.

And the New York story, too, sank like a stone, even in one of America’s most liberal cities: There was little public pressure on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to roll back the secret program. Even a Pulitzer Prize for his critics didn’t dislodge Police Commissioner Ray Kelly from his place as one of the city’s most popular leaders, now the subject of a last minute draft effort for mayor.

You could make the case that these two episodes, in Washington and New York, showed two things: First, the government can spy on Muslim citizens — or any specific person or group it says is associated with terrorism — without fear of broader public disapproval. Second, the government felt it had reason to fear a public backlash over spying indiscriminately on the broad public, even in the course of looking for terrorists.

So there are reasons, good and bad, to think the evidence of a vast, and secret, spying program that picked up phone calls between every American citizen and his or her parents, boyfriends, or co-workers will be different. The immediate reaction to the Guardian story is one of them, a combination of a national mood and new partisan dynamics in which members of both parties are openly denouncing a program that many of them knew existed. The moment in which the word “terrorism” could justify almost any domestic policy is long past.

This moment is, most of all, a test of that aphorism politicians will quote to almost any end, the one that begins (at least in one version) “First they came for the Communists, and I said nothing.” The tolerance of widespread surveillance of Muslims helped build a government apparatus, and the legal underpinnings of it, are now used much more widely than many Americans are comfortable with. The political path to rolling it back isn’t clear.

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