NSA Polls, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Depending on how the question is asked, Americans either think President Bush is doing what’s needed to catch those pesky terrorists or is a power grubbing snoop.

A widely reported WaPo-ABC News poll released yesterday showed that nearly two thirds of Americans support the NSA scanning telephone call records. Now, a Newsweek poll shows a majority thinking it goes “too far.”

How can this be? Editor & Publisher helpfully suggests that the public got smarter, quite literally, overnight:

So what happened? Most likely views changed that much in one day after more negative media reports (including many from conservative commentators such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough) surfaced. The Washington Post survey took place before many Americans had heard about, or thought about, the implications. The Newsweek Poll also reached twice as many Americans.

Expanding the sample size, once it is at acceptable levels, has negligible results on the margin of error. It has no effect on the responses. But, sure, more information on a rapidly breaking story could plausibly change minds.

More likely, though, the explanation for two polls released in close proximity with wildly different results comes down to methodology. One of the most important issues is question wording.

Here’s the WaPo/ABC question:

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?

Frankly, that’s a bit convoluted. Still, it presents the program in great context: What’s happening, how it’s happening, and why it’s happening.

The Newsweek question is not provided. From their report on the poll results, though, one gathers that they conflated the electronic eavesdropping and phone record search programs.

According to the latest NEWSWEEK poll, 53 percent of Americans think the NSA’s surveillance program “goes too far in invading people’s privacy,” while 41 percent see it as a necessary tool to combat terrorism. […] 57 percent said that in light of the NSA data-mining news and other executive actions, the Bush-Cheney Administration has “gone too far in expanding presidential power.”

This is, obviously, a wholly different issue.

Public opinion on this matter will no doubt evolve and gell as more information becomes available. It will be viewed through a filtered lens based on perceptions of the Bush administration, which is in a free fall in the polls. It’s unlikely to change radically in a single day, however.

Update: I still can’t find a link to the poll itself on the Newsweek site but Kevin Drum has a screen cap of it.

14. Now on another subject. . . As you may know there are reports that the NSA, a government intelligence agency, has been collecting the phone call records of Americans. The agency doesn’t actually listen to the calls but logs in nearly every phone number to create a database of calls made within the United States. Which of the following comes CLOSER to your own view of this domestic surveillance program?

It is a necessary tool to combat terrorism.
It goes too far in invading people’s privacy.
Don’t know.

This wording, like the WaPo/ABC wording, is convoluted but reasonably fair. Calling it a “domestic surveillance program,” especially in light of thirteen previous questions, is inaccurate, though, and could certainly influence the results. Further, there could easily be a conditioning effect set up by the previous questions if they are not being rotated.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Former says:

    America Blog is under terror IP attacks…………….

  2. Bithead says:

    Doubtless, American opinion will continue to evolve, as the mainstream media gets its message out and informs the American public and what it should think.

  3. In what sense is calling it a ‘domestic surveillance program’ inaccurate?

  4. Roger says:

    Good question Stormy D.

  5. James Joyner says:

    SD, Roger: “Surveillance” usually connotes someone being closely watched. If I’m understanding the program correctly–and, granted, that’s a big ‘If’ since what I know is based on an anonymously sourced USA Today article–that’s not happening.

  6. SCSoxFan says:

    I think the answer to the difference can be found in the wording. The Post poll clearly states in the question that the data are used in anti-terrorism. The Newsweek poll only describes the program. The only mention of terrorism is in the possible answers. I believe that the American people are more accepting of programs like this if they are presented as anti-terror efforts, rather than general gov’t surveillance.

  7. Maggie says:

    I have NO PROBLEM with the GOVERNMENT looking over the list of numbers I called; but could someone tell me how to STOP my HUSBAND from reviewing my phone records. He threw a “hissy-fit” when he saw my cell phone charges last month.

  8. Roger says:

    James, Bush himself called it a “terrorist” “surveillance” program. NO, this is not the dictionary usage of the word surveillance, but we all know what is meant. To trifle about the word when its usage does not affect actual understanding is to cavil. Call it something else if you will, spying, whatever, the problem remains.

  9. Jon Hendry says:

    “�Surveillance� usually connotes someone being closely watched. If I�m understanding the program correctly�and, granted, that�s a big �If� since what I know is based on an anonymously sourced USA Today article�that�s not happening.”

    What if, say, you started making phone calls in the next week to a friend travelling in Dubai, which ended up causing your phone number to be flagged by the NSA?

    Chances are, they’re frequently processing every phone number’s calling patterns to identify those phones that are ‘of interest’. If they’re processing your phone calls every month or so, like a Google indexing run, then I’d say you are essentially under surveillance. Your ongoing activities are being monitored.