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Americans Generally Comfortable With Patriot Act

Americans Generally Comfortable With Patriot Act

Few believe it goes too far in restricting civil liberties

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Few Americans say they are highly familiar with the Patriot Act, signed into law over two years ago, but most believe it is within acceptable bounds in its treatment of civil liberties. Furthermore, despite sharp criticism of the law by the American Civil Liberties Union, more Americans trust Attorney General John Ashcroft than trust the ACLU to balance the sometimes competing values of national security and civil liberties.

That is the positive spin suggested by poll data relating to the counter-terrorism law passed by Congress in the panicked weeks shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The negative spin is that Americans are at odds with some of its specific provisions.

According to a Feb. 16-17 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, only one-quarter of Americans (26%) believe the Patriot Act goes too far in restricting people's civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. Nearly as many (21%) think it does not go far enough, while the plurality (43%) believes it is about right. That represents a more than 2-to-1 balance of opinion against the idea that the act goes too far. Public reaction has changed little since first measured last August.

Based on what you have read or heard, do you think the Patriot Act goes too far, is about right, or does not go far enough in restricting people's civil liberties in order to fight terrorism?

Few Americans have "a great deal" of confidence in either Attorney General Ashcroft or the ACLU to balance the need to protect Americans from terrorist attacks with the need to protect basic civil liberties for Americans. But factoring in the percentage who have "a moderate amount" of confidence, Ashcroft receives higher confidence levels than the ACLU does, 57% to 43%.

How much do you trust each to balance the need to protect Americans from terrorist attacks in the U.S. with the need to protect basic civil liberties for Americans?

Partisan Gulf on Patriot Act

Despite broad public support for the idea that the Patriot Act does not restrict civil liberties too much, pockets of resistance are evident in Gallup polling. Less than a majority of all political or demographic groups believe that the Patriot Act goes too far in sacrificing civil liberties, but a third or more of the following groups do take that position:

  • Self-described "liberals" (45% say it goes too far, while 23% say it is about right and 21% say it does not go far enough)
  • Americans with postgraduate educations (42% "too far" vs. 10% "not far enough")
  • Democrats (38% too far vs. 20% not far enough)
  • Military veterans (35% too far vs. 18% not far enough)

Also, men are more likely than women to say the Patriot Act goes too far. By a 32% to 17% margin, men believe the act goes too far in restricting civil liberties (vs. not going far enough). Conversely, by a 25% to 21% margin, women believe the Patriot Act does not go far enough.

In addition to women, the groups least likely to say the act goes too far are Republicans, conservatives, people from rural areas, and those with no college education.

Fuzzy on the Details

A key aspect of public response to the Patriot Act is that Americans are largely unfamiliar with it. Only 13% say they are "very" familiar with it. Another 46% say they are "somewhat" familiar, but 41% admit they are "not too" or "not at all" familiar.

This lack of knowledge is reflected in Americans' inaccurate understanding of whether certain governmental investigatory powers were established by the act.

  • Six in 10 believe that the Patriot Act gives investigators the ability to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without charging them and without allowing them access to a lawyer. In fact, the Bush administration bases this policy (in use with Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba) on the president's constitutional war powers.
  • A majority of Americans (51%) mistakenly believe that the use of military tribunals for non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism stems from the Patriot Act. In fact, this is simply a Bush administration policy that has yet to be exercised.
  • However, when asked about investigators' ability to enter houses of worship or attend political rallies within a terrorism investigation, a majority (54%) correctly answers that this power is not associated with the Patriot Act.

Americans' low familiarity with the Patriot Act may also explain why respondents disapprove of some government powers provided by the act when Gallup describes them, at the same time that they generally believe the act does not go too far in restricting civil liberties. Specifically:

  • Seventy-one percent of Americans disapprove of the act's provision that federal agents can secretly search a U.S. citizen's home and, for an unspecified period of time, not inform the person of that search.
  • A slim majority (51%) opposes requiring businesses, including hospitals, bookstores, and libraries, to turn over records in terrorism investigations without informing their patients or clients.
  • Close to half of Americans (45%) disapprove of giving federal agents broad latitude in obtaining information on private citizens from financial institutions in the course of terrorism or money-laundering investigations. Only 51% approve.

The survey finds that the more familiar one is with the Patriot Act, the more likely one is to believe it trespasses on civil liberties.

Opinion of the Patriot Act: By Familiarity With It

However, this correlation does not prove that increased access to information about the Patriot Act necessarily reduces public support for it. It could merely reflect that those most anxious about civil liberties are the ones most likely to be paying close attention to the law.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,006 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 16-17, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

24. As you may know, shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a law called the Patriot Act was passed which makes it easier for the federal government to get information on suspected terrorists through court-ordered wiretaps and searches. How familiar are you with the Patriot Act -- very familiar, somewhat familiar, not too familiar, or not at all familiar?

 

Very
familiar

Somewhat familiar

Not too familiar

Not at all familiar

No
opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

13%

46

27

14

*

2003 Nov 10-12 ^

12%

41

25

22

*

2003 Aug 25-26 ^

10%

40

25

25

--

*

Less than 0.5%

^

Asked of a half sample.



25. Based on what you have read or heard, do you think the Patriot Act -- [ROTATED: goes too far, is about right, or does not go far enough] -- in restricting people's civil liberties in order to fight terrorism?

 

Too far

About right

Not far enough

No opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

26%

43

21

10

2003 Nov 10-12 ^

25%

45

20

10

2003 Aug 25-26 ^

22%

48

21

9

^

Asked of a half sample.



Q.26-27 ROTATED

26. As you may know, Attorney General John Ashcroft oversees the enforcement of the Patriot Act by federal authorities. How much do you trust Ashcroft to balance the need to protect Americans from terrorist attacks in the U.S. with the need to protect basic civil liberties for Americans -- a great deal, a moderate amount, not much, or not at all?

 

Great
deal

Moderate amount

Not
much

Not
at all

No
opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

17%

40

23

15

5



27. The American Civil Liberties Union, also known as the ACLU, has criticized many legal aspects of the Bush Administration's war on terrorism. How much do you trust the ACLU to balance the need to protect Americans from terrorist attacks in the U.S. with the need to protect basic civil liberties for Americans -- a great deal, a moderate amount, not much, or not at all?

 

Great
deal

Moderate amount

Not
much

Not
at all

No
opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

11%

32

29

24

4



Q.28 AND Q.29-30 SPLIT SAMPLED

28. Next, I will read a list of things government officials can do when conducting a terrorism investigation. For each, please tell me if this is something government officials can do specifically because of the Patriot Act, or if it is something they could have done prior to the Patriot Act being passed. How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

BASED ON -- 505 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

A. Hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without charging them with a crime or allowing them access to a lawyer

 

Can do because
of the Patriot Act

Could do before Patriot Act passed

No
opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

60%

26

14



B. Require non-U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism offenses to face a trial before a military tribunal

 

Can do because
of the Patriot Act

Could do before Patriot Act passed

No
opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

51%

34

15



C. Enter houses of worship or attend political rallies

 

Can do because
of the Patriot Act

Could do before Patriot Act passed

No
opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

28%

54

18



Q.29-31 ROTATED

29. One provision in the Patriot Act allows federal agents to secretly search a U.S. citizen's home without informing the person of that search for an unspecified period of time. Do you approve or disapprove of this provision?

BASED ON -- 501 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 

Approve

Disapprove

No opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

26%

71

3



30. Another provision in the Patriot Act requires businesses, including hospitals, bookstores, and libraries, to turn over records in terrorism investigations and prevents the businesses from revealing to their patients or clients that these records have been turned over to the government. Do you approve or disapprove of this provision?

BASED ON -- 501 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 

Approve

Disapprove

No opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

45%

51

4



31. One provision of the Patriot Act allows federal agents in terrorism or money-laundering investigations to submit lists of people to financial institutions. The institutions are required to reveal whether the people on the lists have accounts with them. The federal agents can submit the names without a judge's prior approval. Do you approve or disapprove of this provision?

BASED ON -- 501 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 

Approve

Disapprove

No opinion

2004 Feb 16-17

51%

45

4



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