As September 11 Anniversary Approaches, Americans Largely Oppose Government Surveillance

With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks just days away, a new poll found that Americans largely oppose government surveillance to support national security, the Associated Press reported. The poll, conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, illustrated that support among Americans for surveillance mechanisms used to listen to or track conversations outside the U.S. declined in the last decade.

Those surveillance tools were once viewed as a necessity by people in the U.S. in the prevention of more terror attacks, the AP reported. The decline in support for government surveillance comes as the end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan causes global threats to receive more attention.

The poll found that 46 percent of Americans do not support the U.S. government reading emails between people outside the U.S. without a warrant, even though law allows the measure for foreign intelligence collection, compared to 30 percent who said they supported it. In a similar poll conducted by AP-NORC a decade ago, 46 percent of Americans were in favor of the practice, compared to 30 percent who opposed it, the AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

9/11 Tribute
As the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approaches, Americans increasingly balk at intrusive government surveillance in the name of national security, and only about a third believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were worth fighting, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Two vertical columns of light representing the fallen towers of the World Trade Center shine against the lower Manhattan skyline on the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, seen from Jersey City, N.J. on Sept. 11, 2020. Stefan Jeremiah/AP Photo

The new poll was conducted August 12-16 as the Taliban were marching toward their rapid takeover of the country. Since then, Afghanistan's Islamic State affiliate launched a suicide bombing that killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, and experts have warned about the possibility of foreign militant groups rebuilding in strength with the U.S. presence gone.

In a marked turnabout from the first years after September 11, when Americans were more likely to tolerate the government's monitoring of communications in the name of defending the homeland, the poll found bipartisan concerns about the scope of surveillance and the expansive intelligence collection tools that U.S. authorities have at their disposal.

The expansion in government eavesdropping powers over the last 20 years has coincided with a similar growth in surveillance technology across all corners of American society, including traffic cameras, smart TVs and other devices that contribute to a near-universal sense of being watched.

Gary Kieffer, a retired 80-year-old New Yorker, said he is anxious about the government's powers.

"At what point does this work against the population in general rather than try to weed out potential saboteurs or whatever?" asked Kieffer, who is a registered Democrat. "At what point is it going to be a danger to the public rather saving them or keeping them more secure?"

"I feel like you might need it to an extent," Kieffer said. But he added: "Who's going to decide just how far you go to keep the country safe?"

Eric McWilliams, a 59-year-old Democrat from Whitehall, Pennsylvania, said he saw surveillance as important to keeping Americans safe.

"I wasn't for the torture stuff, which is why they did it outside the country. I wasn't for that," McWilliams said, referring to the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA to question suspects. "But as far as the surveillance is concerned, you gotta watch them — or else we're gonna die."

Americans are also more likely to oppose government eavesdropping on calls outside the U.S. without a warrant, 44 percent to 28 percent. Another 27 percent hold neither opinion.

About two-thirds of Americans continue to be opposed to the possibility of warrantless U.S. government monitoring of telephone calls, emails and text messages made within the U.S. Though the National Security Agency is focused on surveillance abroad, it does have the ability to collect the communications of Americans as they're in touch with someone outside the country who is a target of government surveillance.

About half are opposed to government monitoring of internet searches, including those by U.S. citizens, without a warrant. About a quarter are opposed and 2 in 10 hold neither opinion. Roughly half supported the practice a decade ago.

The ambivalence over government surveillance practices was laid bare last year when the Senate came one vote short of approving a proposal to prevent federal law enforcement from obtaining internet browsing information or search history without seeking a warrant. Also last year, Democrats pulled from the House floor legislation to extend certain surveillance authorities after then-President Donald Trump and Republicans turned against the measure and ensured its defeat.

Despite general surveillance concerns, six in 10 Americans support the installation of surveillance cameras in public places to monitor potentially suspicious activity — although somewhat fewer support random searches like full-body scans for people boarding commercial flights in the U.S. Just 15 percent support racial and ethnic profiling to decide who should get tougher screening at airports, where security was fortified following the September 11 attacks.

About 7 in 10 Black Americans and Asian Americans oppose racial profiling at airports, compared with about 6 in 10 white Americans.

As the U.S. this summer was ending the two-decade war in Afghanistan, most Americans, about 6 in 10, say that conflict — along with the war in Iraq — was not worth fighting. Republicans are somewhat more likely to say the wars were worth fighting.

When it comes to threats to the homeland, Americans are more concerned about U.S.-based extremists than they are international groups. FBI Director Chris Wray has said domestic terrorism, on display during the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is "metastasizing" and that the number of arrests of racially motivated extremists has skyrocketed.

According to the poll, about two-thirds of Americans say they are extremely or very concerned about the threat from extremist groups inside the U.S. By contrast, about one-half say they are extremely or very concerned about the threat from foreign-based militants.

While Republicans and Democrats are generally aligned in their concerns about international extremism, the poll shows Democrats are more likely to be concerned than Republicans about the homegrown threat, 75 percent to 57 percent.

On other top national security matters, about half of Republicans and Democrats are concerned by North Korea's nuclear program, and about 7 in 10 say the same about the threat of cyberattacks. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats also believe that the spread of misinformation is an extremely or very concerning threat to the U.S, though Democrats are slightly more likely to say so.

But there's a much greater partisan divide on other issues. Democrats, for instance, are far more concerned than Republicans about climate change, 83 percent vs. 21 percent. But Republicans are much more strongly concerned about illegal immigration than Democrats, by a margin of 73 percent to 21 percent.

Pentagon 9/11 Tribute
Despite growing attention on international threats, fewer Americans support government surveillance on conversations outside the U.S. for purposes of national security than from the last decade. An American flag is draped on the side of the Pentagon where the building was attacked Sept. 11, 2001, on the 14th anniversary of the attack on Sept. 11, 2015. Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo