A Washington Post poll is getting a lot of play today, suggesting that Americans support universal surveillance, like 2-to-1. My first reaction, of course -- as in all polls -- is What did they ask, and In what order did they ask it?
(1) Because specific wording will tend to prompt specific responses, and (2) Because earlier questions can be used to set a tone, to generate subsequent results.
The real news in this poll: Americans are at about 50-50 on whether to worry about this...until you start cooking their responses. We only have a handful of sample questions, of course -- if we had more we could judge the pattern better, which is maybe why they virtually never post an entire poll -- but we have enough to get started. Look at how it's done:
43. As it conducts the war on terrorism, do you think the United States government is or is not doing enough to protect the rights of American citizens?
Response: 53-45, "is doing enough" -- given the 4% margin of error, roughly 50-50. People are, that is, undecided. (Note, btw, the phrase "as it conducts the war on terrorism" -- that's in there because if they'd asked "Do you think the United States government is or is not doing enough to protect the rights of American citizens?" they would have got a 100% "Hell no." Heh.)
Anyway, given that 50-50, time for the Washington Post, as is its wont these days, to get to work defending the administration.
44. What do you think is more important right now - (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?
(1) The "right now" means both (a) "Remember 9/11!" and (b) "This is only temporary" (says who?) -- and, btw, is there to deliberately suppress consideration of broad general principles (the Constitution, f'rexample). (2) More importantly, the whole thing is a straw man argument -- nobody is suggesting that the government should stop investigating terrorist threats, nor that such investigation won't bump up against privacy rights, at least somewhat. The question as written amounts to "Which is more important to you -- your personal survival, or legal abstractions?" (or, worse yet, "Do you think terrorists have important privacy rights?") -- with predictable, and indeed deliberate, results.
But the really important point is that question 44 is here as a set-up for the biggie, question 45:
45. 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?
This is basically putting the best possible pro-administration spin on the story, and then asking whether you approve...right after reminding you of 9/11, and assuring you that it's not only completely above-board, but that it's only temporary. For that matter, look at all the assumptions here: "to investigate terrorism" (for that purpose only?, are we sure?); "without listening to or recording the conversations" (are we sure of that, either, particularly given the history of deception here? No, we're not).
Like most such -- alas! -- it's a push poll, meant to simmer folks down while their "betters" decide what to do.
Now suppose they'd asked it this way:
43. In some 750 cases, the President has claimed the right not to follow laws passed by Congress because they would limit his power. Do you agree that Presidents should be able to decide which laws they have to follow?
44. It's been reported that the President has secretly ordered the National Security Agency to keep a permanent record of all American telephone calls, to be used for law enforcement purposes. Do you think such a program might have any potential for abuse?
Think the results would be the same? I don't. :/
93 93/93 -- AJ