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May 15, 2006
Behind The USA Today Poll

Two major polls attempted to take the temperature of the American electorate in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of NSA data-mining through billions of phone call records. The Washington Post reported that 63% of all Americans did not mind that the telephone carriers, excepting Qwest, had voluntarily given those records to the NSA. Almost in the same time frame, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed a bare majority against it -- but even that poll had contradictory internal information:

A majority of Americans disapprove of a massive Pentagon database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public.

The survey of 809 adults Friday and Saturday shows a nation wrestling with the balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties.

By 51%-43%, those polled disapprove of the program, disclosed Thursday in USA TODAY. The National Security Agency has been collecting phone records from three of the nation's largest telecommunication companies since soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When looking at the raw data, the first item that causes a raised eyebrow is that over a third of the people polled either have not followed the issue closely or even at all. That eliminates almost 300 of the 809 people surveyed from the sample, and it also gives a pretty good indicator that the story may not be as explosive as people would like to think. A third of Americans don't even care about it. What does that tell us?

The next odd item is the polling on the Bush admnistration's effort to balance civil liberties with the pursuit of terrorists. A majority believe that either the Bush administration has balanced it properly -- or that it hasn't gone far enough in fighting the terrorists (34% and 19%, respectively). Forty-one percent feel that the White House has gone too far, up from 38% in January, but within the margin of error.

Then we have the strange split among the naysayers. While 51% of the sample disapprove of the program, 34% of those (17% overall) believe that the program would be acceptable under some circumstances. Only 31% overall believe that the creation of a phone database by the NSA would never be acceptable under any circumstances, which tends to agree with the Post polling. That trend continues with 64% expressing little or no concern about whether the federal government has their telephone records.

In other words, the public has a great deal of ambivalence in their initial reaction to this program, and while they don't necessarily like it, it isn't keeping them awake at night. From these results, it appears most Americans don't really have too much of a problem with data mining on telephone calls as long as the conditions are right; I suspect most of them would like to see more Congressional oversight on such a program (two-thirds support hearings on the subject), but the actual number of absolutists in opposition is about one-third.

The true polling will come in the next week or so, when people have had more opportunity to learn about the particulars of the program and its usefulness in national security. The polling taken thus far has not allowed enough time to pass, which can be clearly seen from the muddy and contradictory results, not only between the two polls but even within this one.

UPDATE: Dafydd at Big Lizardsnotes the key difference between the ABC/WaPo poll and the two conducted by Newsweek and USA Today -- the fact that the former explained the purpose of the data collection in the question. Here's the question asked by the ABC/WaPo poll:

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?

USA Today asked this:

As you may know, as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism, a federal government agency obtained records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans. How closely have you been following the news about this?

Based on what you have heard or read about this program to collect phone records, would you say you approve or disapprove of this government program?

Especially when a third of the sample has not followed the story much or at all, giving a full explanation makes a great deal of difference.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 15, 2006 5:27 AM

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