Making Sense of Public Attitudes Toward NSA Surveillance

poll1a.jpgMSNBC journalist Bob Sullivan, in his blog Red Tape Chronicles, writes:

Ask Americans something like, “Should the government be allowed to read e-mails and listen to phone calls to fight terrorism?” and you’ll get a much different result than if you ask, “Should the government be allowed to read your e-mails and listen to your phone calls to fight terrorism.” . . . .

In 2002, The Pew Research Center for People and The Press asked just those questions — and by simply dropping the word “your,” the number of people willing to support such government snooping jumped by 50 percent. Only 22 percent were willing to let the government peek when it was personal, but 33 percent were willing when it sounded like only someone’s else privacy was at risk, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for Pew.

Another issue, when it comes to framing questions in polls, is whether warrants are mentioned. Consider the question above: “Should the government be allowed to read e-mails and listen to phone calls to fight terrorism?” I’d even answer yes. The government should be allowed to conduct a wide range of searches . . . . with a search warrant, however. Indeed, under the Fourth Amendment, the government can read email and listen to phone calls with a search warrant. [The Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires a slightly more protective order than a warrant to engage in domestic wiretapping.]

So the question should be posed as: “Should the government be allowed to read e-mails and listen to phone calls without a search warrant or the appropriate court order required by law to fight terrorism?”


Consider this poll data from Rasmussen Reports. The question asked was: “Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?” The answer — 64% said yes and just 23% said no.

Sounds like support for the NSA surveillance? But it’s not clear what this means. Many might be believe that the NSA should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations pursuant to a court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or pursuant to a warrant.

A Gallup poll asks a more well-worded question:

As you may know, the Bush administration has been wiretapping telephone conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries without getting a court order allowing it to do so. Do you think the Bush administration was right or wrong in wiretapping these conversations without obtaining a court order?

Right — 50%

Wrong — 46%

No opinion — 4%

The 50% figure is much different from the Rasmussen number, but it is still alarmingly high.

However, I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of polls because I think they are skewed by the type of people who bother to cooperate. Is it a really good demographic sampling of the population based on education and profession? I wonder, for example, how many lawyers (who are probably most familiar with what a court order is and why it is valuable) participate. All lawyers I’ve spoken to about polls have said they don’t bother wasting their time with them. I never participate in polls. Perhaps other people have different attitudes, but I wonder whether there’s a correlation between one’s view about participating in polls and one’s profession or one’s level of knowledge about particular legal and political issues. Ironically, we’d need some poll data on this question.

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5 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    A particular Disraeli quote is responsible here.

    This may be my own mix of cynicism and East-Coast Ivy Academic Elitism (TM), but if half of those Americans who bother to respond to polls think a hot-button issue like warrantless NSA surveillance is a good idea, that reinforces my intuition that it’s a bad one.

  2. John Armstrong says:

    er, I blame the hour and my work preparing a calculus lecture for my addledness. Substitute “appropriate” for “responsible” above.

    Honestly, I have no idea what could cause such aphasia.

  3. MJ says:

    Here’s my unscientific response. I talked to most of my extended family about this issue this weekend at a family function. My family is decidedly middle-class, non-political (although given that I have had a family member in Iraq for more than a year – not particularly President Bush fans), and as typically down-to-earth and midwestern as you are going to find.

    They all seemed to understand that there was a legal argument about whether or not the President could do this. In other words, none of them thought that it was a slam-dunk that the WH was just breaking the law – that this was probably right on the line.

    They all – to a person – thought that it made sense to do try to intercept terrorist phone calls, and that the government was not up to anything underhanded – they believed this was being done to protect the country.

    About half sympathized with the WH, kind of a “people complained that they weren’t doing enough, now they complain that they’re doing too much” line of comment.

    In the 20 or so family members I talked to about this, the phrase “if you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about” or some variation thereof, came up 5 or 6 times. Not one of them was up in arms about this, and the strongest negative reactions about the program were along the lines of “I don’t know, he (the President) might have gone too far.” – followed, invariably by “but I guess you have to do stuff like this…”

    Thus, here’s my conclusions from my un-offcial, unscientific Middle-America polling (of my family):

    Average folks don’t think this is a big deal and expect things like this to be done in the interest of protecting the country from an attack.

    Average folks don’t think the President is trying to spy on them for nefarious reasons.

    Average folks don’t think that this is a big intrusion on thier privacy.

    Average folks seem, grateful is too strong a word – resigned may be too weak a word – accepting, of the President’s actions as being proactive and necessary, or at least arguably so.

    So… I think that while people who already can’t stand the President are going to yell that the sky is falling (See Al Gore yesterday), average folks aren’t likely to see it that way.

  4. Qbi's Weblog says:

    Haben Sie etwas gegen

  5. Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

    It should surprise no one that citizens will only agree to regulate things that won