A clear majority of Minnesotans appear to be shrugging off privacy concerns amid revelations of a massive U.S. government anti-terrorism program that collects data on citizens’ phone calls and Internet usage.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll finds that 57 percent of Minnesotans approve of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) court-authorized dragnet of phone and Internet data to spot possible terrorist activity. Only 33 percent say they disapprove, while 10 percent are unsure.

The poll also finds that more Minnesotans disapprove than approve of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s decision to leak the existence of the government’s data collection. The 46-42 split on that question suggests some uncertainty about Snowden’s motives and whether the public has a right to know more about the highly classified operation.

At the same time, 60 percent of Minnesotans surveyed say they believe President Obama’s assurance that, despite the widespread data mining, “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Another 38 percent said they believe the statement to be false or completely false.

The findings are based on interviews with 800 Minnesota adults, June 11-13, by land line and cellphone. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Interviews with poll respondents revealed a deep strain of ambivalence behind the numbers.

“To a certain extent, I’m unhappy that people in general are being tracked,” said Dawn Teigland, a retired addiction counselor in Lindstrom. “I know it’s not actual conversations, but I think there’s a lot of information that can be gathered about individuals in doing this tracking.”

Despite her reservations, Teigland, a Republican, said she recognizes the post-9/11 threats the nation is facing. “I understand that with the Patriot Act [the law that authorized the program] we need to be able to do some of this,” she said. “But I was under the impression that it would not be this widespread. For that reason, I’m concerned about it.”

Others said that given the realities of the modern digital age, the existence of the NSA’s program is no surprise.

“I’d say it’s par for the course,” said David Aldright, a health care technology professional in St. Paul. “It’s more of an assumption about what the government is doing to protect us, because everything is electronic today, e-mail, phone calls, what have you. I see it as part of modern life. That’s where the information is. You have to go to the source.”

Given the ubiquity of electronic communications, Aldright said he’s skeptical about government assurances that they don’t listen in on calls. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they listen for key words, and if there’s nothing there they move on,” he said.

But Aldright, a political independent, said he also sees little harm in the revelation of intrusive security programs such as PRISM, which allows the government to intercept the calls and e-mails of non-U.S. citizens abroad.

“Everybody pretty much knows this stuff is going on,” he said. “If you look behind the scenes, maybe the American public doesn’t know, but other governments know, and they’re probably all doing it themselves.”

Some opponents of the NSA program see it as the inevitable result of what they see as congressional overreach after the 9/11 attacks. “I was upset when the Patriot Act was passed, and I knew it would lead to things like this,” said Larry Janssen, an occupational safety and health consultant in Stillwater. “When you put a law like that in place, it’s something that the agencies responsible expand in scope to take more power.”

Janssen, an independent who voted for Obama, said he trusts the president’s assurances that citizens’ phone calls are not being monitored without warrants. But he added, “these things always have a way of growing beyond what they were intended to be.”

Despite Janssen’s reservations about the intelligence operation, he has mixed feelings about Snowden’s decision to expose it. “His intentions were probably good,” Janssen said of Snowden, “but I don’t know if it was the right thing to do what he did.”

Given the public’s growing resignation to government intelligence operations, some found Snowden’s leak the most troubling part of the NSA story.

“As I read about it, it’s the most puzzling of the current crises that have been happening,” said Vivian Mason, a former Minneapolis park board member. “This low-level employee had access to all these things. The fact that somebody like that could have the access and be able to come out publicly and create this whole incident was more shocking to me.”

Mason, a lifelong DFLer, noted that “the government has been doing these things for years, even before 9/11.” But she added, “I really do trust the president. Some of this kind of thing has to be done. But we really don’t have all the information on it.”

Possibly because of presidential politics and Tea Party criticism, the poll found a significantly higher level of support for the NSA data collection program among Democrats than Republicans. Altogether, 68 percent of Democrats said they approve, compared to 51 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of independents.

Women also are more likely to approve, by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent. Men approve by a margin of 54 percent to 35 percent.

Critics of all political persuasions have raised civil liberties or constitutional questions about the NSA program in Washington. Some, while defending the program, have called for more openness and government accountability.

But national security concerns seem to trump those issues for a majority of Minnesotans who express support for the operation.

“If the government feels that there’s somebody out there that’s maybe doing something suspicious, a terrorist, a child molester, a drug dealer or whatever, if they can keep us as Americans safe, I’m 100 percent for it,” said Mark Ehmke, an electrician in Montgomery. As for Snowden, Ehmke said, “I think he sold out our country.”

 

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