Media conservatives cited faulty poll to claim popular support for domestic spying program

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Conservative media figures have defended the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program by citing a Rasmussen poll saying 64 percent of Americans believe "the National Security Agency [should] be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States." But the key issue, which the poll misrepresents, is not whether surveillance of terrorism suspects should take place at all -- something about which there is little controversy -- but whether President Bush violated the law by approving warrantless searches of domestic phone and email communications.

Conservative media figures have defended President Bush's authorization of warrantless domestic surveillance by pointing to a recently released Rasmussen poll showing that 64 percent of Americans believe "the National Security Agency [should] be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States." However, the question they are referring to in the Rasmussen poll misrepresents the issue for which President Bush has been criticized. The poll simply asked whether the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept phone conversations between "terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States." Bush has been sharply criticized on both sides of the aisle for his apparent failure to comply with the requirements of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which calls for the administration to obtain search warrants before or after initiating domestic surveillance in most situations. The key issue, in other words, is not whether surveillance of terrorism suspects should take place at all -- something about which there is presumably little controversy -- but whether Bush violated the law by approving warrantless searches of domestic phone and email communications.

The survey question is flawed in other respects, as well. It does not mention that Bush apparently authorized this surveillance without the meaningful oversight of any court or Congress. Moreover, while the question suggests that Bush has authorized surveillance only between "terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States," in fact, the program has reportedly captured conversations in which all parties were located in the United States.

MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow, and conservative radio host Michael Reagan referenced the Rasmussen poll in defending Bush's authorization of the NSA eavesdropping program. The poll, conducted December 26-27, asked respondents: "Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?" Sixty-four percent of respondents answered "Yes." But the poll omitted a key fact in the debate that has erupted following The New York Times' disclosure of the domestic surveillance program. As attorney Stephen Kaus noted in a December 28 entry on The Huffington Post weblog:

Notice anything missing from the question? How about the part that the wiretapping is done without a warrant, although there is a court set up to consider the evidence and issue just such warrants. There is no doubt that the FISA Court would issue a warrant to listen to calls between "terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States." All the government needs is some articulable basis for the suspicion. Apparently that is what it did not have.

If the polling question asked was "do you think that the government should be able to listen secretly to any international phone calls to the United States that it wants to on the approval of a shift supervisor at the National Security Agency without a warrant or any court or legislative supervision whatsoever," the numbers would be very different.

In his column for the January 9 edition of Time, Krauthammer wrote that Democrats "dare not suggest that the program be abolished," because "according to a Rasmussen poll, 64% of Americans, a free and very sensible people, support eavesdropping on calls between suspected terrorists abroad and people in the U.S." In a January 3 column for the conservative website FrontPageMag.com, Reagan claimed that Bush is "climbing" in the polls, and cited the Rasmussen poll as evidence: "Another poll on December 28, 2005, showed that a whopping 64 percent of Americans believe the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States."

On the January 2 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Buchanan claimed Bush's surveillance program is backed by the Constitution and the American people:

BUCHANAN: He's not only right, Chris, the president of the United States, something like 64 percent of the American people agree with him, 81 percent of Republicans.

MATTHEWS: On what point?

BUCHANAN: On the specific point that the president of the United States has the inherent authority to eavesdrop telephone calls overseas in a war on terror. Fifty-one percent of Democrats agree with that, the Rasmussen poll. The country is with him. This, excuse me, is very much a journalistic story.

In a December 30 National Review Online column, Kudlow, who serves as the website's economics editor, wrote: "Worse, the Democrat's ACLU-type response to reports of NSA eavesdropping without court warrants is a huge mistake. The latest Rasmussen poll reports that 64 percent of respondents believe the National Security Agency should be allowed to tap cell phones and e-mails in order to intercept communications between suspected foreign and domestic terrorists."

Additionally, on the January 2 Hardball, Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas claimed: "I mean, I think although there is a fight starting on Capitol Hill now and there is beginning to be some pushback, I think most of the American people still support this kind of eavesdropping or are willing to give the president a lot of license to go pretty far." Thomas offered no justification for his belief that "most of the American people still support this kind of eavesdropping." At the time of Thomas's statement, the Rasmussen poll was the only major poll addressing the NSA program.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, National Review
Person
Pat Buchanan, Michael Reagan, Lawrence Kudlow
Show/Publication
Hardball
Stories/Interests
Polling
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