We are in what appears to be a post- Post-9/11 United States where the scope of power afforded to government for surveillance and action to fight terrorism and prevent attacks is being questioned by a significant portion of the public.
In the 14 years since President George W. Bush recognized instantly that America was called upon to fight a “war on terror,” most Americans now prioritize civil liberties above anti-terrorism efforts when the two come in conflict, according to Gallup’s tracking since 2002. Sixty-five percent of Americans say the government should take steps to prevent terrorism but not by obviating civil liberties. Thirty percent of respondents say any steps to prevent terrorism are justified.
This is down from 2011, when 71 percent of Americans expressed unwillingness to yield civil liberties to anti-terrorism measures. Substantially more Americans put civil liberties at the top now compared with 49 percent just four months after 9/11, when they said that the government should take all necessary steps, but stop short of violating civil liberties.
You might think Democrats are driving this, but currently Republicans and Democrats hold similar views. Sixty-six percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say civil liberties should be the higher priority over security and 29% say protecting citizens from terrorism should be. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prioritize civil liberties over security. After 9/11, Republicans were more sensitive to security than protecting civil liberties but that changed a lot only a year after the attacks and has been growing ever since.
Gallup provides some context:
The new USA Freedom Act was passed in a public opinion environment very different from that of the 2001 Patriot Act. Once the heightened concern about terrorism evident in the first several months after 9/11 faded, Americans began to place a greater emphasis on protecting civil liberties when thinking about preventing further acts of terrorism. Importantly, those shifts in public opinion occurred long before Snowden exposed the vast government program of collecting data on Americans' electronic communications. And Americans continue to place a greater emphasis on civil liberties even as concern about terrorism has risen amid the growing threat of ISIS.
The change in the public opinion climate, which is reflected in the views of elected representatives, may help explain why the newly passed USA Freedom Act pulls back some of the powers the Patriot Act provided to the government in its efforts to prevent terrorism.
Congress recently passed the USA Freedom Act, which is designed to replace the expiring Patriot Act, adopted in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Both bills outline the scope of government’s authority and efforts to fight terrorism. The USA Freedom Act stripped out the government’s authority to collect data on Americans’ electronic communications. The government can still obtain that information from phone companies through a warrant.
Advocates of the former surveillance policies and data collection are quick to argue that the government wasn’t listening to conversations but rather collecting data on who called whom and length of conversation, valuable information that could be crucial if a U.S. citizen is talking to suspected terrorists.
This split is inevitability going to grow as younger generations come of age to sway public opinion and public policy. According to Pew, in 2011 only 25 percent of the Millennial generation (as compared with nearly half of older generations) believe that the kind of surveillance practiced under the old Patriot Act is necessary.