Scripps Howard News

WASHINGTON — Americans increasingly suspect the federal government has become cloaked in secrecy, a concern they don’t have with their local and state governments.

People also overwhelmingly believe that their federal leaders have become sneaky, listening to telephone conversations or opening private mail without getting court permission, according to a survey of 1,008 adults commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for national Sunshine Week, March 11-17.

By a 2-1 margin, people want FBI agents and other investigators to obtain search warrants before monitoring private communications, even if they suspect terrorism. And more than a quarter of the people in the survey said they suspect their own phone calls and letters have been intercepted.

The poll, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, found that concerns about federal secrecy are rising.

Twenty-five percent believe the federal government is either “very open” or “somewhat open,” while 69 percent said it’s either “somewhat secretive” or “very secretive.”

That’s a shift from a similar poll last year, when 33 percent thought the federal government was open and 62 percent thought it was secretive. About 6 percent and 5 percent were undecided in the 2007 and 2006 polls.

“This is quite disturbing news,” said David Westphal, Washington editor for McClatchy Newspapers and co-chairman of ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee. “When only 25 percent of the people consider theirs is an open government, that’s a real problem in a democracy.”

The perception of secrecy has not eroded public confidence in other levels of government. A clear majority said they believe their local and state governments are open to public scrutiny.

“That is an accurate assessment and it’s absolutely true,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “By and large, state open-records laws are more progressive and user-friendly than anything we are seeing on the federal level these days.”

Respondents in the poll were told: “President Bush has said the FBI and other federal officials need greater freedom when investigating suspected terrorists. Do you think federal investigators should get permission from a federal judge before opening mail or monitoring telephone calls, or should they be allowed to do so without permission?”

Sixty percent of the adults in the poll said federal authorities should consult a judge before monitoring Americans’ telephones and mail, while 31 percent said agents should act without judicial permission in cases of terrorism. Nine percent were undecided or gave other responses, such as: “It depends on the circumstances.”

A total of 28 percent said it’s either very likely or somewhat likely that their own mail and telephone calls have been intercepted.

“The pendulum has finally started to swing back,” said Dalglish. “People are coming to realize that secrecy is rampant and our civil liberties have been messed with.”

However, adults in the poll were deeply divided on whether the press should report on government actions even when their own privacy is at issue. Forty-six percent said they approve of the disclosure that the National Security Agency had been monitoring international telephone calls without permission from a court, and 45 percent said they disapprove. Nine percent were undecided.

“This is a complex issue with a range of views. Different people hold different levels of respect for the watchdog role of journalism,” said Robert Steele, who teaches press-ethics issues at the Poynter Institute. “Editors must constantly make judgments on how much information should be given to the public.”

Only 43 percent approved of press reports that the CIA has used electric shock and water torture during interrogations, 41 percent approved of disclosure that the CIA operated secret prisons in Eastern Europe and 38 percent approved of the press requiring disclosure of the identities of most of the enemy combatants held at a special prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I’m not surprised that there is sharp disagreement about this,” said Westphal. “The decisions that editors make about what to publish in national security matters are very, very difficult to make. And they are subject to scrutiny and a fair amount of criticism by the administration.”

The survey found that support for news-media decisions to disclose questionable government operations rose substantially among better-educated Americans. Almost two-thirds of people who have continued their college education beyond a bachelor’s degree said they approve of the disclosure of the NSA domestic spying program.

The survey was conducted by telephone Jan. 21 through Feb. 5 under the supervision of Guido H. Stempel III, director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. The poll was sponsored through a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know. Sunshine Week is led by ASNE and is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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