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Security Versus Civil Liberties Debate Divides U.S., Poll Says

By Eddy Ramirez
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

While Americans say they oppose airport screenings of only those passengers with Arabic names or Middle Eastern appearance, many agree that the government should secretly monitor conversations between prisoners and their lawyers, a new national poll shows.

A poll released today by the National Constitution Center shows that Americans remain deeply divided between protecting civil liberties and ensuring national security, raising an issue at the heart of an intensifying public debate: how to balance constitutional provisions with the need to ferret out those who may be plotting more terror.

“People’s knowledge of the Constitution is very piecemeal,” said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, the nonpartisan group that conducted the poll. “They’re struggling with tensions ... the need to balance individual protections and rights with the need to protect society.”

According to the poll, 58 percent of Americans say they support the current practice of randomly screening passengers, regardless of name or background. A quarter prefer a more limited approach, picking only those on the list of suspects, while 11 percent say that only passengers of Middle Eastern origin should be screened.

This is a dramatic shift in public opinion from a year ago, when polls showed that most Americans favored more intensive security checks -- including a special form of identification -- for Muslims or Arab Americans before they boarded airplanes.

Recently, though, a new anti-terrorist tracking system at U.S. airports has drawn fire from Islamic nations, which contend that fingerprinting and photographing their citizens is discriminatory.

But despite overwhelming opposition to racial profiling among Americans, the new poll shows that a majority wants the government to enact stricter measures to curb potential terrorism activity.

For example, nearly 6 in 10 Americans say that monitoring of prisoner-lawyer conversations, which used to be protected as confidential, is a “sensible way to get information about possible terrorist plots.” Just over a third believe that this violates the right to private legal advice.

Americans also share a widespread unwillingness to extend basic constitutional guarantees to those in the United States illegally.

After being reminded that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the country illegally, 58 percent of the respondents said that such individuals deserve no constitutional protections. Anyone caught entering the United States illegally should be deported immediately, 61 percent said.

Despite these findings, which show that most Americans accept tougher government impositions to stop potential terrorists, more than half say they are concerned that law enforcement could “snoop on people’s private lives,” noting that the government either is “threatening to cross the line” or has already done so.