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Poll finds U.S. split over eavesdropping

Half say warrants unnecessary; most want changes to Patriot Act



Justice and Rights
George W. Bush
National Security Agency (NSA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Though Americans are growing more skeptical of the White House record on civil liberties, the nation is divided over whether the Bush administration should use wiretaps without first obtaining a warrant, a recent poll shows.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,003 adults found that 50 percent of those polled believe it's OK to forgo warrants when ordering electronic surveillance of people suspected of having ties to terrorists abroad.

Another 46 percent said the policy is wrong, and 4 percent said they had no opinion. (View some of the poll results)

The poll, conducted Friday through Sunday, has a sampling error of 3 percentage points.

President Bush has defended signing secret orders allowing the National Security Agency to intercept international communications by people in the United States who are suspected of having links to terrorist organizations.

Bush acknowledged signing the orders after the program was first reported in The New York Times, sparking criticism across the political gamut. The president has said the wiretaps are legal and necessary to fight terrorism. (Read about Vice President Dick Cheney's stance)

The Bush administration contends that the congressional resolution authorizing military action after September 11, 2001, gave the president wide-ranging power to defend the country, including the power to authorize wiretaps without the approval of a special panel of judges established to approve surveillance.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 states that the special court must approve any eavesdropping on U.S. citizens on American soil.

A memo from the Congressional Research Service released last week called Bush's claim that he had a congressional blessing for the wiretaps "unlikely," and Democrats have repeatedly said that the White House broke the law by bypassing the special court.

Of the adults polled, 75 percent said they have been following the issue very closely or somewhat closely, but only 29 percent said the issue will be "extremely important" to them in the 2006 elections.

Fifty-five percent of those polled ranked terrorism as an "extremely important" issue.

On the topic of civil liberties, 38 percent of those polled said the Bush administration has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, while 40 percent said the government's approach has been "about right," and 19 percent said the government had not gone far enough.

The numbers show a shift in opinion from 2002, when 11 percent of those polled said the White House had gone too far and 60 percent said the measures used to fight terrorism were "about right."

Surveys conducted between the 2002 poll and Tuesday's poll show the percentage of people who think the administration has gone too far has gradually increased.

For instance, in 2003, 28 percent said Bush administration officials had overreached in cutting back on civil liberties, and 48 percent said they had struck a proper balance.

Tuesday's poll also found that 13 percent of the public believes there should be no changes to the USA Patriot Act, the antiterrorism legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks.

The most controversial portions of the law allow the FBI -- with a court order -- to obtain secret warrants for business, library, medical and other records, and to get a wiretap on every phone a suspect uses. It also authorizes the use of "sneak-and-peek" searches, in which authorities don't have to notify the subject of the warrant until later.

Portions of the bill were temporarily renewed before Congress adjourned in December, but they will expire in early February unless extended again. (Full story)

In the poll released Tuesday, 50 percent of the public said they support minor changes to the law, and 24 percent said they want to see major changes. Seven percent called for it to be scrapped.

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