Sunday, May 14, 2006

How to ask a question
Following USA Today's revelation that the NSA is trying to collect a log of every phone call made in the United States, the polling outfits have leapt into action to find out what we think about that. The Washington Post/ABC poll on Friday gave us this result:
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 NET -- 63

Unacceptable NET -- 35

Some right wing bloggers jumped at that result; two-thirds of Americans support our president keeping us all safe and sound, hurrah. Encouragingly, some conservatives and Republicans have remembered that they once disapproved of the government sticking its nose too deeply into our business and have expressed some reservations.

On Saturday, Newsweek released a poll:
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 -- 41

It goes too far in invading people’s privacy -- 53

Don’t know -- 6

What are we to make of that twenty-two percent drop in approval over one day? Did people get a chance to think about what it really means and change their minds? Any poll watcher will tell you that the phrasing of a question has a strong effect on the results--this is the whole underlying idea behind push-polling--but, as Mustang Bobby pointed out, these two questions don't appear that different.

Opinions really are in flux and an opportunity exists to help establish the conventional wisdom on this subject. The defenders of the administration will continue to play on fear with the message that only bad people have anything to fear, our president would never do anything wrong, and only traitors question necessary security measures. The opponents of the administration find the whole business outrageous; this is the behavior of some cheesy police state, like Ceaucescu's Romania, not America.

I think that the uncertainty in opinion polling is caused by people being unsure of how this affects them personally. It's a sad truth that most people will gladly accept strong sacrifices for someone else. An Onion headline a few years gently lampooned this when they said, "98% Favor Mass Transit for Others." Over the last few years, how often have we read Op-Ed pieces that say Muslim-looking people should be happy to accept profiling and being thrown off planes if it will make us white folk feel more secure? We all know Pastor Niemoller's statement on this subject: “First they came for the Communists….” This kind of moral cowardice would be a joke if it didn't so easily lead to tragedy.

When Bush said we are only listening to al-Qaeda calls, who could argue with that? When he said we need to listen to many overseas calls to figure out which ones are al-Qaeda, most people thought that's reasonable, and, besides, I don't make overseas calls. Now we find out that they have been trying to get records of every single call in America and while people will start to nod and say "that's okay," eventually it penetrates their complacency that "every" means them, too.

I want to see a poll question that personalizes the issue:
As you may know, it was reported last week that the National Security Agency, a federal intelligence agency, has collected phone records for every call you have made or that has been made to you. Which of the following comes closer to your own view of this domestic surveillance program:
I'm ready to make any sacrifice if it will keep us safer from terrorism.

This is an unacceptable intrusion into my privacy and I want the head of the peson who thought this up on a plate, not one of the good plates either – use that old Milmac that we keep in the garage for camping trips.

Maybe the second choice is a little wordy and could use some editing, but you get the idea.

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