- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2013

A string of scandals and fresh concerns about government overreach from the Internal Revenue Service to the National Security Agency have soured voters on President Obama and left many questioning his honesty and trustworthiness.

On a day when NSA leaker Edward Snowden stepped up his assault on government surveillance programs in a lengthy Internet chat, Mr. Obama was confronted with some of the worst poll numbers of his presidency. A CNN/ORC survey released Monday found Mr. Obama’s job approval rating has fallen to 45 percent, a drop of 8 percentage points in one month, as the administration is besieged by negative news reports about its secretive and broad surveillance programs.

The poll confirms a steady erosion of the president’s popularity that other surveys have documented since his re-election.

When the numbers in the CNN survey are broken down, there are even more troubling signs for the fate of Mr. Obama’s second-term agenda. The president has lost 17 percentage points in the past month among voters younger than 30, who are his most ardent supporters and among those most likely to back his efforts on issues such as climate change and gun control.

“The drop in Obama’s support is fueled by a dramatic 17-point decline over the past month among people under 30, who, along with black Americans, had been the most loyal part of the Obama coalition,” said Keating Holland, polling director for CNN. “It is clear that revelations about NSA surveillance programs have damaged Obama’s standing with the public, although older controversies like the IRS matter may have begun to take their toll as well.”

Mr. Snowden, who worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii for a private defense contractor before fleeing to Hong Kong, counts himself as a disillusioned former Obama supporter. In a 90-minute online forum run by Britain’s Guardian newspaper Monday, he said he went public in part because of his deep dissatisfaction with the president.

Mr. Obama “closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see at Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge,” Mr. Snowden said.

Mr. Obama and several congressional leaders have defended the government’s phone and Internet surveillance programs as legitimate and legally authorized tools to track and frustrate terrorist attacks.

Mr. Obama, whom former Vice President Dick Cheney and others have criticized for failing to defend the NSA anti-terrorism efforts more vigorously, gave a lengthy justification of the need for the programs Monday night in an interview on PBS.

Refusing to comment directly on the damage Mr. Snowden’s leaks may have caused, Mr. Obama told PBS host Charlie Rose, “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. [citizen], the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails and has not. They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and unless they go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been.”

Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, will return to Capitol Hill Tuesday to defend the agency’s record at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is expected to explain specific plots thwarted by the NSA’s efforts.

Political hit

There is no question that the drumbeat of scandals and public relations hits — including the NSA and IRS incidents, the investigations of journalists who received embarrassing leaks and the fallout from the terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya — have taken their toll on the standing of Mr. Obama, who was in Northern Ireland on Monday for the first day of the Group of Eight summit.

For the first time in Mr. Obama’s presidency, 50 percent of those polled say they don’t believe he is “honest or trustworthy.” The drop in presidential approval in the CNN survey is across the board, affecting Mr. Obama on every issue measured: The economy (down 2 points), foreign affairs (down 5 points), the federal budget (down 4 points), terrorism (down 13 points) and immigration (down 4 points).

Asked for the first time by CNN/ORC about the president’s handling of “government surveillance of U.S. citizens,” 61 percent of Americans said they disapprove.

Other surveys have found a steady decline in the president’s popularity in his second term. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in early June showed that Mr. Obama’s approval rating had dipped to 48 percent, from 53 percent in December. A CBS/New York Times survey showed his job approval at 47 percent at the start of this month, down from 51 percent in early January.

The CNN poll revealed that Americans are more evenly split on the need for aggressive snooping efforts such as those conducted by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.

A slim majority said the Obama administration has been about right (38 percent) or has not gone far enough (17 percent) in balancing restrictions on civil liberties to fight terrorism, while 51 percent approve of the NSA program to gather phone records.

Snowden speaks

Mr. Snowden contended in his online session that there are few safeguards to prevent abuse of data-gathering projects and that large amounts of data about Americans routinely are collected in dragnet searches, despite officials’ denials.

“The reality is this [any U.S. intelligence agency] has access to query raw databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want. Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset ID, and so on,” he said. “The restrictions against this are policy-based, not technically based,” Mr. Snowden added.

Even though U.S. intelligence officials note that the warrantless monitoring of U.S. citizens’ communications is illegal, he said, “Americans’ communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant.”

Officials “excuse this as ‘incidental’ collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications,” he said. “If I target for example an email address and that email address sent something to you, Joe America, the analyst gets it. All of it. [Internet protocols], raw data, content, headers, attachments, everything. And it gets saved for a very long time.”

Mr. Snowden, whom some lawmakers have called a traitor, also charged that audits to check for misuse “are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications.”

He said for the British electronic espionage agency, General Communications’ Headquarters, or GCHQ, only 5 percent of queries performed were audited.

Mr. Snowden also denied disclosing legitimate NSA operations when he spoke to an English-language Chinese newspaper about the agency’s hacking of computer systems in China and in Hong Kong, where he fled with a thumb drive containing “dozens” of agency secrets.

“I did not reveal any U.S. operations against legitimate military targets,” he said of his interview last week with the South China Morning Post. “I pointed out where the NSA has hacked civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals and private businesses because it is dangerous. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash.”

He said many of the operations he was planning to expose, including electronic and Web-based eavesdropping on foreign diplomats at a Group of 20 summit in 2009 revealed Monday, were directed against friendly countries.

“Congress hasn’t declared war on the countries — the majority of them are our allies — but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people.”

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