NSA polls: Do they contradict each other?

By Germanm

May 14, 2006 1:58pm

Polling director Gary Langer blogged last Thursday about trust and surveillance. Since then, ABC News/Washington Post and Newsweek polls have trumpeted seemingly contradictory statistics on what people think about the NSA’s call database. Gary blogs about why: Different questions can get different answers, particularly on issues that are both new and fraught with competing concerns. Often we can learn more about public sentiments by taking differences in polls as a sign of complexity rather than contradiction, and trying to peel back the layers to see what’s behind it. One difference between the ABC/Post and Newsweek questions on NSA phone monitoring is that ABC/Post describes its rationale, saying the NSA “analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects.” The Newsweek question says the NSA is making a database of calls but doesn’t explain what it’s doing with them. It may be harder to say something like this is OK without knowing its purpose. While both questions note that actual calls are not monitored, Newsweek characterizes the program as “domestic surveillance,” while ABC/Post does not. And ABC/Post asks if the NSA program is an “acceptable or unacceptable” way to investigate terrorism, while Newsweek asks if it’s a “necessary tool” against terrorism or “goes too far in invading people’s privacy.” “Necessary tool” may be a higher bar than “acceptable.” Another difference is that ABC/Post first asked two general questions: whether the government, as it investigates terrorism, is doing enough to protect Americans’ rights; and which is more important right now, investigating terrorism or preventing intrusions on privacy. Those questions may get people thinking about the tradeoffs between these two, highly desirable aims. We’re sure to see more polls on the subject. A close reading of the questions they ask should help shed more light on public attitudes on these issues. The full text of the actual questions posed in both polls is after the jump. Newsweek: Now on another subject… As you may know, there are reports that the NSA, a government intelligence agency, has been collecting the phone call records of Americans.  The agency doesn’t actually listen to the calls but logs in nearly every phone number to create a database of calls made within the United States. Which of the following comes CLOSER to your own view of this domestic surveillance program…It is a necessary tool to combat terrorism;  or, It goes too far in invading people’s privacy. (Necessary tool 41%, Goes too far 54%) ABC News/Washington Post: It’s been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat? (Acceptable 63%; Unacceptable 35%)

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