Americans Support Wiretaps? Not Really
By Conor Clarke
January 13, 2006 - 5:49pm ET
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Do Americans care whether the government spies on its citizens? A number of polls on Bush's warrantless wiretaps have been published in the past two weeks and, in predictable fashion, proponents of the president's controversial program have trotted them out as evidence of widespread public support. But do the polls actually show us that the American people support the program? Not really. All the polls show is that Americans want a lot of things—protection from terrorism, as well as civil liberties and checks and balances—and their opinions on these subjects are more complex than a simple poll can suggest.
First there was the Dec. 28 Rasmussen poll, which found that 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." Just 23 percent of Americans, it claimed, disagree. This prompted Time columnist Charles Krauthammer to prattle on about how democrats, in the face of such robust support for the wiretaps, "dare not suggest that the program be abolished." Conservative writer Michael Reagan went so far as to say that the widespread popularity of the NSA program has put the president's critics in an invidious position "that can only be seen as favorable to an enemy sworn to kill us all." And President Bush himself seemed to trumpet the perceived public support for his actions: that was the basic thrust behind his insistence (repeated several times) that "what the American people want" is for the administration to "detect and prevent a possible attack"—an effort that, according to Bush, must necessarily include the NSA program.
But the Rasmussen survey is more than a little disingenuous. The poll has been harshly (and rightly) criticized for leaving out a critical detail: the NSA intercepts are warrentless. As HuffingtonPost blogger Stephen Kaus pointed out after the poll was released:
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.
And when questions like Kaus' are asked, the numbers do in fact turn out to be different. A Dec. 29 Zogby poll found that "49 percent of U.S. voters believe President George Bush has authority to order wiretaps without court approval." A second Rasmussen poll, released Jan. 3, claims that 50 percent of Americans "say the president did not break the law" in authorizing the taps. And an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of Americans think the information gathering is "acceptable in investigating terrorism."
Hovering at around 50 percent, these results aren't exactly convincing one way or the other. But that hasn't stopped conservatives, like The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, from claiming that "Polls show that people generally support [Bush] on the wiretap issue." On "Hardball with Chris Matthews," Pat Buchanan went further in his defense of Bush: "The country," Buchanan rhapsodized, "is with him."
Again, not quite. The problem with the second set of polling data is that it is all narrow in scope: by foregrounding one or another part of the NSA program, the poll questions can reflect no more than partial public opinion on a complicated subject. The Zogby and latter Rasmussen polls focus narrowly on the president's authority and the program's legality—not on, say, the wiretaps' moral rightness or desirability. And the ABC poll foregrounds the fact that the taps occurred in the context of terrorist investigations (who isn't in favor of terrorist investigations?), but ignored the possibility (reported several places) of more expanded use.
Thus, it's no surprise that when the questions are different, so are the results. That's the lesson to be learned from an AP-Ipsos poll, released last week, which asked the following question: "Should the Bush administration be required to get a warrant from a judge before monitoring phone and internet communications between American citizens in the United States and suspected terrorists, or should the government be allowed to monitor such communications without a warrant?" The results of this survey were dramatically different: 56 percent of respondents said the administration should be required to get a warrant; only 42 percent of those polled said it should proceed without one. (And one wonders if the results would change if the public knew just how easy it is to get a warrant: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court—a secret court assigned to overlook such cases—has rejected just four of the nearly 15,000 warrant requests the government has made since 1979.)
The point is not that Americans abhor the NSA wiretaps; the point is merely that polls can't, or haven't yet, told us if they support the program one way or another. Americans support investigating terrorists. They also support constitutional protections. And things get cloudy at the intersection between the two. Conservatives—President Bush included—should stop pretending that that's not the case.
Editor's Note: Conor will be blogging occasionally as part of his “Winternship” with TomPaine.com. He is currently a student at Amherst College, where he is in his third year studying legal and political theory.
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