Patriot Act Thrives on Ignorance

Fewer than half of Americans know the purpose of the Patriot Act, and the more they know about it the less they like it, according to a poll released Monday.

Fewer than half of those polled, 42 percent, are able to correctly identify the law’s main purpose of enhancing surveillance procedures for federal law enforcement agencies, according to the poll conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

Almost two-thirds of all Americans, 64 percent, said they support the Patriot Act. But support dropped to 57 percent among those who could accurately identify the intent of the legislation.

The survey was intended to take a closer look at the high levels of public support the Patriot Act has gotten in various polls, said Samuel Best, the center’s director.

“The Patriot Act has been a very visible piece of legislation,” Best said. “We wanted to see if people had an understanding of the act that differentiated it from the war on terrorism generally.”

“Most people don’t distinguish the Patriot Act from the war on terror in general,” Best said.

The House and Senate have voted to extend provisions of the Patriot Act that were set to expire at the end of this year, making many of those provisions permanent. A conference committee is scheduled to try this fall to work out differences in the House and Senate versions of the legislation.

Some provisions of the Patriot Act are supported by a solid majority, while others got far less support.

The provision that permitted federal agents:

_To use information collected in foreign intelligence investigations for domestic crime investigations was supported by 81 percent.

_To monitor names and addresses of Internet communications in criminal investigations was supported by 69 percent.

_To tap any telephone line a terrorist suspect might use rather than specifying particular phone lines was supported by 62 percent.

_To require libraries to turn over records in terrorism investigations unbeknownst to the patrons was supported by 53 percent.

_To require banks to turn over records to the government without judicial approval was supported by 43 percent.

_To conduct secret searches of Americans’ homes without informing the occupants for an unspecified period of time was supported by 23 percent.

The popularity of the law seems to dwindle for measures that intrude into Americans’ personal lives.

“Once people see these things hit increasingly close to home, they become more and more troubled,” Best said.

Three-fourths said they think that law enforcement will frequently or occasionally use the law to investigate crimes other than terrorism. Almost as many, 72 percent, said they expect it will be used to investigate legitimate political and social groups. People are evenly divided on whether the law has prevented terrorist attacks.

While numerous polls have indicated widespread support for the Patriot Act, Best said his research suggests “people are pretty torn on where they stand.”

The results are based on polling of 800 adults from Aug. 4-22 and have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.


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