Ambivalent views on spy program

How do Massachusetts residents feel about the government surveillance program capable of gathering information on every phone call and Internet computer click made in the country?  Somewhere between ambivalent and uncomfortable. At least that is the early reaction to disclosure of the surveillance program among Bay State residents in a Boston Globe poll conducted a week after news of the domestic surveillance program was reported.

Forty percent of those surveyed opposed the program, while a quarter voiced support for it. More than a third said they either didn’t have enough information to form an opinion or were neutral on the issue.

Views did not differ significantly when the poll results were broken down by race; there was slightly more support for the surveillance effort among men (43 percent) than women (38 percent). An interesting divide emerges based on political affiliation, with independent voters the most strongly opposed (47 percent), followed by registered Republicans (41 percent).  Democrats, who often line up as the strongest supporters of civil liberties, expressed the least opposition to the surveillance effort (31 percent). But reaction to the domestic surveillance program has made for some odd bedfellows, with hardline libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul in league with liberal Democratic members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and local ACLU director Carol Rose in decrying the program. Government officials have defended the program as a crucial component of the strategy to head off terrorist attacks before they occur.

One of the most forcefully put arguments in defense of the program has come from an unlikely voice. Though best known as the creator of the edgy HBO series The Wire, David Simon, who had a previous life as a journalist, dove into the surveillance controversy recently with a blog that has been ricocheting around the Internet.  

Simon writes that “for at least the last two presidential administrations, this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon Bombing before they occur.”

Simon, like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, thinks what we should fear far more than the widespread surveillance now taking place is the sort of blanket clamp-down on civil liberties that would result from another 9/11-scale attack. To some — who see exactly such a clamp-down in the current surveillance program — that argument may echo the old saw about having to kill the patient to save him. Simon says that might be true if there were evidence of widespread abuse of the snooping, which he says, as yet, there is not.

“But those planes really did hit those buildings,” he writes. “And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed, and ideologically-motivated enemy. And, for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.”

                                                                                                                                                                        –MICHAEL JONAS


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