Poll: Americans More Concerned About Civil Liberties In Wake Of Boston Bombing

Two weeks after the Boston Marathon terror attacks, the Americans people are far more concerned about new government limits on civil liberties than the need for new law enforcement measures to prevent future attacks.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Homeland Insecurity
Photo-Illustration by Ji Lee for TIME. Statue of Liberty: Tetra Images / Getty Images, Cameras: iStockphoto, Background: Martin Lladó

Two weeks after the Boston Marathon terror attacks, the American people are far more concerned about new government limits on civil liberties than the need for new law enforcement measures to prevent future attacks, according to a new TIME/CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday.

When given a choice, 61 percent of Americans say they are more concerned about the government enacting new anti-terrorism policies that restrict civil liberties, compared to 31 percent who say they are more concerned about the government failing to enact strong new anti-terrorism policies.

The poll comes at a time when the Boston bombings, which killed three and maimed dozens, has reignited the debate over the unresolved tensions between civil liberties and our security, a topic that is the subject of TIME Magazine’s cover story this week. As Massimo Calabresi and Michael Crowley report, Tamerlan Tsarnaev exhibited a classic pattern of radicalization that might have been spotted through more intrusive surveillance of his online and religious activities. But although new guidelines expanded the FBI‘s counterterrorism powers in 2011, they also limited the bureau’s ability to conduct surveillance on mosques like the one where Tamerlan had two public outbursts suggesting the extent of his religious radicalism.

(PHOTOS: Images: Joy and Relief in Boston After Bombing Suspect’s Arrest)

The TIME/CNN/ORC poll, which was conducted to coincide with the cover story release, found that Americans are becoming more resigned to the reality that future terrorist attacks will occur on the homeland. Only 32% of Americans believe that the U.S. government can prevent all major attacks, down from an average of 40% in 2011 and 41% in 2006.  That said, only 27% of Americans said they are less likely to attend large public events in the future because of fears of terror attacks, a number roughly on par with polls taken after the Atlanta Olympics bombing in 1996.

Concerns about government encroachment on civil liberties, however, have grown in recent years, despite the Boston attacks. When asked if they would be willing to give up some civil liberties if that were necessary to curb terrorism, 49% of Americans said they were not willing, compared to 40% who were willing. A poll by the Los Angeles Times in 1996 after the Atlanta Olympics bombing asked the same question, and found resistance from only 23% of the country.

But popular opinion varies significantly about specific law enforcement techniques to track and detect terrorists. Expanding camera surveillance on streets and in public places draws the support of 81 percent of Americans, up from a 70 percent in a 2006 Harris Interactive poll and 63 percent in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Surveillance cameras proved to be a pivotal law enforcement resource toward identifying and hunting down the perpetrators of the Boston attack. But expanding government monitoring of cell phones and email has just 38 percent in favor and 59 percent opposed — down from 52 percent in favor in the 2006 poll and 54 percent in favor after 9/11. The nation is more evenly split on the question of law enforcement monitoring online chat rooms and forums, with 55% saying they would support increased efforts and 42% saying they would oppose.

But while Americans are increasingly amenable to passive surveillance efforts, including cameras and facial recognition, they are growing more opposed to expanded monitoring of cell phones and email and are more concerned about law enforcement monitoring Internet chat rooms. A plurality, 49 percent, are unwilling to give up civil liberties even if deemed necessary to curb terrorism in the United States — 40 percent say they are willing, and 9 percent day it depends.

In this week’s magazine, Calabresi and Crowley reveal new details about the Obama administration’s domestic anti-terror policies:

  • In Oct. 2011, Obama’s Justice Department issued new restrictions on FBI counterterrorism work in mosques. Under the new rules, agents could no longer enter a religious organization without special new approval. Moreover, according to still-classified sections of the new rules confirmed by TIME, any plan to go undercover in a church or mosque—a tactic employed by the bureau after September 11, 2001—would now need special approval from a newly established oversight body at Department of Justice, the Sensitive Operations Review Committee (SORC).
  • The new restrictions came as the administration moved towards greater cooperation with religious groups. “You are actually better able to protect our security if you can enlist mosques and Muslim communities as our partners,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor tells TIME.

The poll surveyed 606 adult Americans by telephone on April 30, 2013 and has a sampling error of ± 4 percentage points.