Flawed Wash. Post/ABC News poll suggested no link between NSA data collection and warrantless spying -- despite Post's own contrary report

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

A Washington Post/ABC News poll on the National Security Agency program to collect phone call records of tens of millions of United States residents found that 63 percent of respondents found the program acceptable. The poll question claimed that the NSA is not "listening to or recording the conversations" captured by the data collection program, but a Post article reported that the program is related to NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll on the National Security Agency (NSA) program to collect phone call records of tens of millions of United States residents -- conducted on May 11, the same day the program was first publicly disclosed -- asked respondents: "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?" According to the poll, 63 percent of respondents found the program acceptable.

However, the poll question affirmatively claimed that the NSA is not "listening to or recording the conversations" captured by the data collection program. This statement suggests -- falsely, according to the Post itself -- that the data collection program is separate from the NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, first publicly revealed by The New York Times in December 2005. In fact, according to a May 12 Post article, the two programs are directly linked: "Government access to call records is related to the previously disclosed eavesdropping program, sources said, because it helps the NSA choose its targets for listening. The mathematical techniques known as 'link analysis' and 'pattern analysis,' they said, give grounds for suspicion that can result in further investigation." In other words, according to The Washington Post itself -- and contrary to the poll question -- the NSA might well be "listening to or recording the conversations" of at least some Americans as a direct result of its analysis of the phone record data the NSA is collecting.

Moreover, as Media Matters for America has noted, the Post reported on February 5 that according to "current and former government officials and private-sector sources," intelligence officers used the program to eavesdrop "on thousands of Americans in overseas calls" but "dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat."

Both the Post and ABC News posted the results of the poll online (here and here, respectively). A May 12 ABC News online article on the poll reported that it lends "support to the administration's defense of its anti-terrorism intelligence efforts," and the May 12 edition of ABC News' online political newsletter, The Note, proclaimed:

Senators [Arlen] Specter [R-PA] and [Olympia] Snowe [R-ME], Sunday morning pundits, reporters from the Nation's Newspaper and the nation's newspapers, and all MOCs [members of Congress] with "(D)"s after their names want to know more about the domestic telephone record harvesting that the Bush Administration apparently has engaged in.

The American people and [White House press secretary] Tony Snow, however, just might know as much as they want to know about it.

On the May 12 edition of MSNBC News Live, Washington Post polling director Richard Morin, when asked to compare the results of this poll to polling conducted in December 2005 on the domestic surveillance program, responded:

MORIN: Actually, these are a little more positive in favor of the program than the survey we first did on the NSA eavesdropping investigation. Americans seem to be more willing to accept this because it doesn't involve people reading their e-mails or listening in to their telephone calls. Just collecting their phone records.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, ABC
Show/Publication
The Note
Stories/Interests
Polling
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