Who’s afraid of Big Brother?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The American people are just fine with the federal government tracking their phone records. That’s the conclusion one might reach by looking at the latest Pew poll, which finds 56 percent support the controversial National Security Agency program.

King George III, all is forgiven. Then again, they say only a third of the colonists backed the American Revolution, so maybe we’ve always been sheeple.

But wait. Rasmussen finds that 59 percent of Americans — or at least 59 percent of the 1,000 likely voters polled — oppose the NSA’s actions. Only 26 percent are in favor.

Two different polls, two totally different results. How questions on this thorny issue are worded makes a big difference in how people respond.

“The federal government has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans for national security purposes regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing,” Rasmussen’s pollsters stated before asking, “Do you favor or oppose the government’s secret collecting of these phone records?”

A subsequent survey question was: “Is the U.S. government spying too much on Americans these days, not enough or is the level of spying about right?”

Pew, by contrast, asked if the following was acceptable or unacceptable: “NSA getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism.”

Pew followed up with, “Should the government be able to monitor everyone’s email to prevent possible terrorism?”

When it is emphasized that most of the people whose phone records were tracked are innocent, that the government is engaged in snooping and that the justifications are vague, majorities oppose what the NSA is doing.

But when terrorism is emphasized and court orders are mentioned, the public is much more approving. Who wouldn’t let some bureaucrat poke through their LinkedIn requests if it would prevent another 9/11 or Boston Marathon bombing?

A friend finds the Pew wording more neutral. I’m more inclined to agree with Rasmussen’s framing. But for another heavy-handed yet revealing take, let’s consult South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, otherwise known as Mr. Military-Industrial Complex.

“I see the threat to the average American, radical Islam coming to our backyard trying to destroy our way of life,” Graham told an interviewer. “[Rand Paul] sees the threat [from] the government trying to stop that.”

Let’s unpack this. It’s doubtful that even the wackiest of wacko birds is more threatened by people trying to stop a terrorist attack than people trying to commit one.

But if you assume, as Graham does, that unfettered surveillance is effective, that it adversely impacts only the guilty and even serves to protect the innocent, then supporting the NSA and then some makes a lot of sense.

Those of us who are skeptical of sweeping federal surveillance powers need to contest these assumptions and point out the enormous potential for abuse that comes with allowing technological advances to erode Fourth Amendment protections.

The Lindsey Grahams of the world must be challenged to make a positive case for the effectiveness of their approach rather than always hiding behind a veil of secrecy. Make no mistake: national security requires some secrets. But as Justice Potter Stewart observed in the Pentagon Papers case, “When everything is classified, nothing is classified.”

The original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in 1978 after congressional investigations turned up numerous abuses of power, with the government snooping on political opponents, peaceful dissidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.

One safeguard is congressional oversight. But meaningful oversight is impossible if top intelligence officials lie to Congress and even the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees have no clue what’s going on.

This brings us to yet another poll result. According to CBS News, 75 percent approve of the government collecting suspected terrorists’ phone records. They oppose collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans by 58 percent to 38 percent.

Yet 46 percent of respondents say the government has struck the right balance in its counter-terrorism efforts compared to 36 percent who think the feds have gone too far.

In this debate, outrage isn’t enough. From drone strikes to data mining, civil libertarians need to make clear that we’re not just talking about terrorism suspects.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.