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Behind Surveillance Flap, Plunging Trust in Government

If it were the 1950s and the feds were in cahoots with the phone company to root out communist spies, it would hardly be an issue. The press might even choose not to report on it.


Obviously, much has changed since then. Most notably, a sweeping digital revolution has given the federal government and other “data miners” a vast capability to monitor the behavior of nearly every U.S. citizen. That has produced the mushrooming controversy over the government’s anti-terrorism scrutiny of Verizon’s (VZ) call logs — as many as 1 billion phone calls per day — plus the apparent monitoring of servers operated by the world’s biggest Internet companies, including Google (GOOG), Yahoo! (YHOO), Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) (which deny cooperating with the government). The Wall Street Journal reports government surveillance extends to other phone companies, including AT&T (T) and Sprint Nextel (S), and also includes credit-card transactions for millions of Americans.

“It seems that the government wants to know everywhere we go, everyone we know, and everything we think,” says Reed Hundt, who sits on several corporate boards and was commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997. “The law says you’re innocent until proved guilty. Data mining is based on the opposite principle.”

Americans have mixed feelings about their private data getting into corporate or government hands, but they have much stronger views about something else that makes this whole flap a huge problem for the Obama administration: They don’t trust the government. That’s why the uproar is likely to continue and perhaps even jeopardize legitimate efforts to thwart terrorists.

A momentous change

One of the most momentous changes of modern times has been a sharp drop in Americans’ confidence in institutions. In the mid 1980s, for instance, 40% of Americans said they had confidence in Congress, according to Gallup. That’s now at a near-record low of 13%. Confidence in the presidency has fallen from 72% in 1991 to 37%. A separate poll by Pew found that 53% of Americans say the federal government threatens their personal freedom, the highest number in the 18 years Pew has been asking the question.

Government isn’t the only institution Americans view more skeptically. Gallup’s data show that trust in banks, big business, the media, organized religion and the public school system has eroded as well. Americans have become less trusting for a number of reasons, including nonstop partisan squabbling in Washington, dubious programs such as the 2008 TARP bailouts, and a stagnant economy that has degraded living standards, which nobody in charge seems able to do much about.

Policymakers in Washington have been trying to reassure the public about the government’s far-reaching surveillance programs, insisting they are narrow, carefully monitored, and effective at spotting and stopping terrorists. “Everyone should just calm down,” Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said. “This isn't anything that is brand new, it's been going on for some seven years, and we have tried often to make it better.”

Reid might be right that such surveillance isn’t such a big deal — but who trusts Harry Reid, one of the leaders of an institution recently deemed less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams and Donald Trump? Republicans defend the surveillance program, too, but the GOP rates even lower than Democrats among the public, and suffers from an overall image that “stands at one of the lowest points in nearly two decades,” according to Pew.

It gets sketchier. The surveillance program is carried out by the National Security Agency, one of the government’s most secretive bodies. To obtain the legal warrants and other approvals needed to do what it does, the NSA appeals to a secret court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose proceedings are classified. For some reason, this court — supposedly dedicated to foreign intelligence gathering — has ruled that domestic surveillance of Americans, by their own government, is perfectly fine. But we’re not allowed to know why.

On top of all this, the U.S. government has developed a kind of espionage-industrial complex, with nearly 5 million people holding security clearances, including 1.4 million with "top secret" clearances. This shadowy part of the government is so sprawling that nobody seems to know how much it costs, how many people it employs or how much wasteful overlap there is.

Secrecy breeds mistrust, which is why there are now likely to be Congressional hearings on domestic surveillance and intensified calls to end such programs. If it’s true that NSA surveillance has helped defeat terrorist attacks, as Reid and others claim, then distrust in government, warranted or not, could paradoxically make Americans less safe. Washington may be accountable to itself, but for many Americans, that’s not nearly good enough.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.