WASHINGTON – A majority of Americans want the Bush administration to get court approval before eavesdropping on people inside the United States, even if those calls might involve suspected terrorists, an AP-Ipsos poll shows.
Over the past three weeks, President Bush and top aides have defended the electronic monitoring program they secretly launched shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, as a vital tool to protect the nation from Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Yet 56 percent of respondents in an AP-Ipsos poll said the government should be required to first get a court warrant to eavesdrop on the overseas calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens when those communications are believed to be tied to terrorism.
Agreeing with the White House, some 42 percent of those surveyed do not believe the court approval is necessary.
"We're at war," Bush said during a New Year's Day visit to San Antonio. "And as commander in chief, I've got to use the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people. ... It's a vital, necessary program."
According to the poll, age matters in how people view the monitoring. Nearly two-thirds of those between age 18 to 29 believe warrants should be required, while people 65 and older are evenly divided.
Party affiliation is a factor, too. Almost three-fourths of Democrats and one-third of Republicans want to require court warrants.
Cynthia Ice-Bones, 32, a Republican from Sacramento, Calif., said knowing about the program made her feel a bit safer. "I think our security is so important that we don't need warrants. If you're doing something we shouldn't be doing, then you ought to be caught," she said.
But Peter Ahr of Caldwell, N.J., a religious studies professor at Seton Hall University, said he could not find a justification for skipping judicial approvals. Nor did he believe the administration's argument that such a step would impair terrorism investigations.
"We're a nation of laws. ... That means that everybody has to live by the law, including the administration," said Ahr, 64, a Democrat who argues for checks and balances. "For the administration to simply go after wiretaps on their own without anyone else's say-so is a violation of that principle."
The eavesdropping is run by the secretive National Security Agency, the government's code-makers and code-breakers.
Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said most people think that the eavesdropping is aimed at foreign terrorists, even when the surveillance is conducted inside the country.
"They are willing to give the president quite a lot of leeway on this when it comes to the war on terror," said Franklin, who closely follows public opinion.
Some members of Congress have raised concerns about the president's actions, but none of those lawmakers who have been briefed on the program has called for its immediate halt.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, GOP Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania, has promised hearings this year. Five members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, have called for immediate inquiries.
On top of that, a memorandum circulated Friday from two legal analysts at the Congressional Research Service concluded that the justification for the monitoring may not be as strong as the administration has argued.
The NSA's activity "may present an exercise of presidential power at its lowest ebb," the 44-page memo said.
Bush based his eavesdropping orders on his presidential powers under the Constitution and a September 2001 congressional resolution authorizing him to use military force in the fight against terrorism.
The administration says the program is reviewed every 45 days and that Bush personally reauthorizes it. His top legal advisers argue its justification is sound.
The issue is full of grays for some people interviewed for the poll, including homebuilder Harlon Bennett, 21, a political independent from Wellston, Okla. He does not think the government should need warrants for suspected terrorists.
"Of course," he added, "we all could be suspected terrorists."