ABC News polling director touted flawed language of poll on NSA spyingMay 22, 2006 12:36 PM EDT ››› JOE BROWN
In a May 14 posting on ABC News' WorldNewser weblog, polling director Gary Langer purported to explain the disparate results of an ABC News/Washington Post poll and a Newsweek poll measuring public reaction to a National Security Agency (NSA) program that reportedly collects millions of Americans' phone records. Langer claimed that the polls' results -- the Newsweek poll showed much less support for the program than the ABC/Post poll -- might be explained in part by differences in their wording. In addition, Langer touted the ABC/Post poll's assertion that the NSA program is intended "to identify possible terrorism suspects." But, as Media Matters for America noted, the poll's assertion that the program is intended "to identify possible terrorism suspects" is an uncritical adoption of the Bush administration's characterization of the program. The poll also failed to note reports that the Bush administration has engaged in surveillance of others with no suspected terrorism connection and reports that the administration's efforts to identify possible terrorists have been highly ineffective.
The ABC/Post poll -- conducted May 11, the same day the program was first publicly disclosed -- said:
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?
Sixty-three percent of respondents said the program was "acceptable"; 35 percent said it was "unacceptable."
The Newsweek poll -- conducted May 11-12 -- asked:
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.
Forty-one percent of respondents said the program was "a necessary tool"; 53 percent said it "goes too far."
Langer cited differences in the wording of the two poll questions as a reason for the polls' divergent results. He stated that the ABC/Post poll described the "rationale" for the NSA program, "saying the NSA 'analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects.' " "The Newsweek question," he claimed, "says the NSA is making a database of calls but doesn't explain what it's doing with them." Langer further argued that "it may be harder to say something is OK without knowing its purpose."
But Langer's explanation of the wording of the ABC/Post poll question was based on a critical flaw in that question: It accepted the Bush administration's characterization of the program's "purpose." As Media Matters noted, the poll takes the Bush administration at its word despite reports that the administration is spying on Bush critics and war protestors, and the refusal by Gen. Michael V. Hayden -- who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005, during the time of the program's implementation -- to say explicitly that the Bush administration is not spying on political opponents. Moreover, Langer's adoption of the administration's rationale ignores reports that the NSA's warrantless domestic surveillance program -- which reportedly uses the data from its phone-data collection to identify targets for surveillance -- has been inefficient and ineffective at identifying people with terrorist ties. As Media Matters noted, out of up to 5,000 Americans reportedly monitored under the warrantless surveillance program, fewer than 10 per year have aroused enough suspicion that federal courts have granted permission for further surveillance of their domestic communications.
Further, as Media Matters noted, the ABC/Post poll's statement that the NSA program collects customers' phone records "without listening to or recording the conversations" suggested -- falsely, according to the Post's own reporting -- that the data-collection program is separate from the NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, first revealed by The New York Times in December 2005. Despite exhibiting the same flaw as the ABC/Post poll -- asserting that the NSA "doesn't actually listen to the calls" -- the Newsweek poll still produced very different results than the ABC/Post poll. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted May 12-13 did not include the assertion that the NSA does not listen to the calls it tracks, and that poll yielded results similar to those of the Newsweek poll.