Saturday :: Feb 4, 2006

King-George-gate: Vox Populi?


by eriposte

[This is part of my ongoing coverage on King-George-gate: Myths v. Realities. Note that all emphasis in quoted extracts is mine.]

Numerous polling results have been published on Bush's illegal and unconstitutional spying on Americans. The results from various polls appear to be somewhat contradictory on the face of it, but that is largely because of how the questions were framed. In this post, using the data from Polling Report (largely), I examine whether these polls can be interpreted reasonably and consistently, using a common hypothesis. I find that there is indeed a fairly consistent explanation for why certain polls appear to provide more support for Bush's illegal spying program while others don't. Using these findings, I provide some guidance for all progressives on how to frame this issue to make sure that the facts get transmitted accurately.

The polls that I examined are listed below (although I also briefly comment on related findings in the recent MyDD poll). Note that for each media or polling outlet I only focus on the most recent poll. The margin of error, MoE, for all these polls is usually in the low single digit range - so any differences between responses within 6-7%, may in reality be largely indistinguishable.

1. ABC/Washington Post, 1/23-26/2006

2. CBS/New York Times, 1/20-25/2006

3. CNN/USA Today/Gallup, 1/20-22/2006

4. Pew Research Center, 1/4-8/2006

5. Associated Press, 1/3-5/2006

6. Rasmussen, 12/26-27/2005

CONCLUSIONS

I. What do the polls really tells us?
II. What should patriotic Americans (Democrats, Republicans and everyone else) do now?


1. ABC/Washington Post, 1/23-26/2006

Unless otherwise specified, the questions and results discussed in this page are taken from the "Terrorism" section of Polling Report.

The ABC/WaPo poll question of relevance is this one:

As you may know, the National Security Agency has been investigating people suspected of involvement with terrorism by secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails between some people in the United States and other countries, without first getting court approval to do so. Would you consider this wiretapping of telephone calls and e-mails without court approval as an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

In response to the above question, the response was 56% "acceptable", 43% "unacceptable" and 1% "unsure".

Clearly, the phrase "investigating people suspected of involvement with terrorism" is used to frame the entire question. In other words, a person who hears this question on the phone is quite likely pre-disposed to thinking that the monitoring is only restricted to someone involved with terrorism. So, it is no surprise that 56% appear to approve this (although 43% have a healthy skepticism and found it unacceptable). Would 56% have found it acceptable if the question mentioned that the wiretapping was being done on ordinary Americans whom the Bush administration had no "probable cause" to associate with terrorism? I doubt it (more on this later).

Further, this question does not highlight the point that the wiretapping is illegal and violates a law passed by Congress (or that the Bush administration was caught repeatedly lying about the nature of the program). Would the same 56% have approved if the question mentioned that the wiretapping was illegal (or that the Bushies have been lying repeatedly about what the program is all about)? That is also doubtful.


2. CBS/New York Times, 1/20-25/2006

This poll was more interesting than the others because it asked the question in different ways and provided some insight into how people's responses overwhelmingly depend on how the issue is framed.

(a) How the target is painted

Let's start with two questions which don't even mention the fact that the spying was conducted without warrants.

When the question is:

In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, would you be willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mails of ordinary Americans on a regular basis?

The response is an overwhelming NO (70-28 margin).

But when it phrased in this manner:

In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, would you be willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mails of Americans that the government is suspicious of?

The response is an overwhelming YES (68-29 margin).

In other words, even though the action is framed in the context of terrorism, people support it only when the targets of the spying as painted as somehow linked to terrorism. In this respect, this question is framed somewhat along the lines of the question in the ABC/WP poll discussed above. But when the question is framed more accurately as also involving spying on ordinary Americans, there is overwhelming rejection of the practice.

(b) The mention of warrants, or lack thereof

A key point to remember is that neither of the two questions above mention the lack of a warrant. What happens when the concept of a warrant gets introduced?

As expected, support for warrantless wiretapping is significantly less. But even here, if terrorism is introduced into the framing of the question, support increases slightly.

Here is one way the question was phrased in the same poll:

After 9/11, President Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants, saying this was necessary in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. Do you approve or disapprove of the President doing this?

The response is barely YES (53-46) with net disapproval from Democrats and Independents.

However, with this change in how the question was asked:

After 9/11, George W. Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants. Do you approve or disapprove of George W. Bush doing this?

The response is barely NO (50-46). Notice that terrorism is not mentioned in the framing of the latter question.

(c) Trust in Government's assertion on targets of spying

There is another aspect indirectly revealed by the second question in (a) above - that many Americans implictly trust the Government's assertion that they are only snooping on people suspected of supporting terrorism. This aspect was also covered explicitly in the same poll.

For example, this question:

In general, how much confidence do you have that government agencies are able to correctly tell whose phone calls and e-mails should be monitored and whose should not? Do you have a great deal of confidence, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

...resulted in the following responses - 10% (A Great Deal), 48% (A Fair Amount), 28% (Not Very Much), 13% (None At All) and 1% (Unsure).

So, clearly a small majority in the poll appeared to place trust in the Government's assertions about the target of their spying. This finding is fairly similar to the findings in the poll conducted by MyDD.

Obviously, none of these questions highlight the point that the Bush administration has been caught lying repeatedly about the true nature and basis of the illegal spying program and the nature of the people who were spied upon. Would a majority approve the spying if the questions mentioned that the Bush administration has been lying repeatedly about what the program is all about? I doubt it.

Moreover, it should also be noted that a majority are also concerned about loss of their civil liberties.

How concerned are you about losing some of your civil liberties as a result of the measures enacted by the Bush Administration to fight terrorism? Are you very concerned, somewhat concerned, not very concerned, or not at all concerned?

The results? 34% (Very Concerned), 30% (Somewhat Concerned), 17% (Not Very Concerned), 18% (Not At All Concerned) and 1% (Unsure).

Likewise:

Which concerns you more right now -- that the government will fail to enact strong anti-terrorism laws, or that the government will enact new anti-terrorism laws which excessively restrict the average person's civil liberties?

Result: 40% (Fail To Enact Strong Laws), 48% (Restrict Liberties), 2% (Both), 2% (Neither), 8% (Unsure)

So, what do we learn from these results?

  • Even with "9/11” added to the framing of poll questions, if “terrorism” is not explicitly mentioned in the question, people are less likely to approve the action, even if the fact that the action violates a law is left out.
  • Even if terrorism is added to the framing, if the targets of the spying are referred to as ordinary Americans, there is overwhelming rejection of the practice.
  • These poll questions do not highlight that the wiretapping is illegal and violates a law passed by Congress. Would a majority approve if the questions mentioned that the wiretapping was illegal? I doubt it.
  • The questions reveal that a slight majority of people are willing to believe the Government's assertion that the target of the spying was a terrorist supporter. Obviously, these questions do not highlight the point that the Bush administration has been caught lying repeatedly about the nature of the program and the people who were spied upon. Would a majority approve if the questions mentioned that the Bush administration has been lying repeatedly about what the program is all about - especially the targets of the spying? I doubt it.

The fact that approval goes up if the targets of the spying are painted as terrorists, explains why the Bush administration has been falsely claiming this was only a "Terrorist Surveillance Program". Clearly, Bush and Cheney and their propagandists in the media have been trying hard to exploit Americans' misplaced trust in their intentions, to dishonestly bamboozle them into thinking that those who were spied upon were all directly linked to terrorism.


3. CNN/USA Today/Gallup, 1/20-22/2006

These results are definitely unfavorable to Bush.

As you may know, the Bush Administration has been wiretapping telephone conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries without getting a court order allowing it to do so. How closely have you been following the news about this: very closely, somewhat closely, not too closely, or not at all?

The results indicate that 69% are either following it Very Closely (31%) or Somewhat Closely (38%). So, the follow-up question must also be assumed to have the same frame as the above one ("U.S. citizens" talking to "suspected terrorists"):

"Do you think the Bush Administration was right or wrong in wiretapping these conversations without obtaining a court order?" N=506, MoE ± 5 (Form A)

The results: 46% Right, 51% Wrong, 3% Unsure

"Do you think a special prosecutor should or should not be appointed to investigate this matter?" N=500, MoE ± 5 (Form B)

The results: 58% (Should), 39% (Should Not), 2% (Unsure). Note that is outside the MoE.

In a nutshell, even though the questions were framed without some important qualifications (that the warrantless wiretapping was illegal and that the Bush administration has been lying repeatedly about the program), here is what the results reveal.

(a) The use of the term "U.S. citizens living in the United States" without implying that those citizens are themselves terrorists, weakens support for the activity. Only 46% approve and 51% disapprove - although the split may be roughly the same considering the MoE.

(b) However, because the spied-upon U.S. citizens are being directly linked to terrorists abroad in the question, there is still some support for the program.

These observations are consistent with the results discussed previously. 


4. Pew Research Center, 1/4-8/2006

"Would you favor or oppose the following measures to curb terrorism? [See below.]" N=748, MoE ± 4 (Form 1)

The results here are interesting because, on two questions: "Requiring that all citizens carry a national identity card at all times to show to a police officer on request" and "Allowing airport personnel to do extra checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle-Eastern descent", there is majority support of 57% each.

But, when it comes to the question of:

"Allowing the U.S. government to monitor your personal telephone calls and e-mails"

Only 24% support it and an overwhelming 73% oppose it. [An overwhelming 68% also oppose "Allowing the U.S. government to monitor your credit card purchases"].

So, what happens when the question is framed in a manner that suggests that the targets of the spying have terrorist ties?

Do you think it is generally right or generally wrong for the government to monitor telephone and e-mail communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties without first obtaining permission from the courts?

Even with such loaded and inaccurate wording, the results were bad for Bush - with only 48% saying "Right", and 47% saying "Wrong" (and 5% "Unsure"). (More on the improper wording of the Pew poll here.)

In other words, if the lead-up to the question uses the "terrorism" frame, when the targets of the spying are not stated to be terrorists or terrorist supporters, the spying is overwhelmingly rejected. It is only when the targets of the spying are painted as having terrorist ties, that support for the spying program matches the opposition to it. Again, qualifiers like the fact that the warrantless wiretapping was illegal and that the Bush administration has been lying repeatedly about the program are not even mentioned in these questions.


5. Associated Press, 1/3-5/2006

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?

This question is framed in a manner that is rather similar to the question from the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll discussed above - namely that the targets were American citizens (not "terrorists") who were communicating with suspected terrorists. As I have discussed above, in this situation, the use of the term "suspected terrorists" in part of the question is likely to elicit support for the spying, but the qualification that the targets of the spying were just American citizens is likely to elicit rejection of the warrantless spying. So, as expected, a majority of 56% said "Required To Get Warrant" and 42% said "Monitor Without a Warrant" (with 2% "Unsure"). (More on this AP poll here.) This result is consistent but stronger than the results from the CNN/ USA Today/Gallup poll discussed above.


6. Rasmussen, 12/26-27/2005 [not covered by Polling Report]

This was of course the first poll on the illegal Bush spying program, and needless to say it had the worst, and most inaccurate question:

Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?

The issue is not the spying per se but whether it was done legally and with a warrant - and who the real targets were. There were no such qualifications in the question. Naturally, 64% said yes and 23% said no - fairly consistent with a similarly unqualified question (one of many) asked in the CBS/NYT poll. (More on how wrongly this poll question was framed here.)


CONCLUSIONS

I. What do the polls really tells us?

Not surprisingly, the seemingly divergent polling results on the Bush administration's illegal spying program on ordinary Americans actually reveal a fair degree of consistency when examined more carefully.

Warrantless spying is supported by Americans (and typically only by a slight margin) only when the questions are framed in a manner to suggest that the targets of the spying are either terrorists or terrorist supporters. This makes it clear why the anti-American Bush administration (and its propagandists) have not only been fabricating or regurgitating a litany of lies on the true nature of Bush's illegal spying program, but also falsely describing it repeatedly as a "terrorist surveillance program".

However, when polling questions bring more facts to the picture, the support for the program dwindles. For example:

  • Even with "9/11” added to the framing of poll questions, if “terrorism” is not explicitly mentioned in the question, people are substantially less likely to approve the action.
  • Even if terrorism is added to the framing, but if the targets of the spying are referred to as ordinary Americans communicating with suspected terrorists, there is generally (slight) net disapproval of the practice (especially by Democrats and independents).
  • Even if terrorism is added to the framing, but if the targets of the spying are referred to as ordinary Americans (without linking them to terrorism), there is overwhelming rejection of the practice.

At the same time, all the poll questions to date do not highlight that the wiretapping itself was/is illegal and violates a law passed by Congress. Additionally, the poll questions do not highlight that the Bush administration has been caught lying repeatedly about the nature of the program and the people who were spied upon.

So, if the poll questions were to be phrased accurately - which is a way of saying that if the true nature of the spying program were to be conveyed accurately to the people - then it is quite obvious that it would be rejected by an overwhelming majority of the public.

The Anonymous Liberal suggested the following phrasing:

Are you bothered by the fact that the President has, in the name of fighting terrorism, authorized the warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens despite the existence of a federal law forbidding such surveillance?

Actually, given what we already know about the program, I believe the more appropriate question to ask is this (borrowing AL's phrasing and modifying it a bit):

In the name of fighting terrorism, the President has authorized the warrantless wiretapping of ordinary U.S. citizens, some of whom may have no real links to terrorists or terrorism. Such warrantless wiretapping was carried out despite the existence of a federal law forbidding such surveillance. Do you believe this kind of wiretapping is acceptable or not acceptable?

That question must be followed-up by this:

The President has repeatedly told the public that wiretapping on Americans would only be carried out with warrants, even though he had already authorized such wiretapping without warrants. He has also said that his spying program is a "terrorist surveillance program" even though evidence has emerged that ordinary Americans with no real links to terrorists were snared by the wiretapping. Should a Special Prosecutor be appointed to investigate the President's actions?

II. What should patriotic Americans (Democrats, Republicans and everyone else) do now?

Patriotic Americans believe that the President is not above the law and that it is not necessary to violate the law and the U.S. Constitution in order to secure America. It is therefore incumbent upon all patriots - in particular those who are in Congress and the media - to convey some basic facts to the broader public and force the media to the same.

1. News reports based on NSA whistleblowers have demonstrated that ordinary Americans were also spied upon - Americans who were not terrorist supporters.

2. Warrantless spying on ordinary Americans, whom the administration did not have probable cause to spy on, is illegal and violates the law and the Constitution.

3. Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly support spying on terrorists or suspected terrorists. Getting warrants for such spying is easy and no court or Congress would have prevented the Government from spying on suspected terrorists or their supporters. So, the Bush admin’s illegal spying program was obviously not meant just to secure America – there was some other ulterior motive.

4. There is absolutely no reason to trust President Bush's words and actions because he has demonstrated that he is a man with no credibility whatsoever. He deliberately misled America when he took the country to war against Iraq on false pretenses. Administration officials, including Bush, repeatedly made false statements regarding their illegal spying program, even claiming in public that warrants are always obtained before wiretapping Americans. So there's no reason to trust Bush now when he says that his illegal warrantless spying program did not include ordinary Americans in its net.

5. There is bipartisan opposition to Bush's illegal spying program.

Patriots should stop reinforcing Bush’s talking point ('only terrorist supporters were spied upon') in their own speeches and responses. The less they repeat Bush’s talking point, and the more they replace it with the facts (“ordinary Americans who were not terrorist supporters were also spied upon”), the more likely they are to get support from the public. As it is, independents and Dems already seem very inclined to disapprove Bush’s actions. They just need a strong nudge.

Finally, those who are even more aggressively patriotic would do well to remind Americans that if Bush, Cheney and his propagandists were at the helm during the violent incipience of American independence, America would have never had the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution (also see Sen. Feingold's post). The talking points they use are reminiscent not of American patriots but that of communist or fascist dictators who falsely assert that security is not possible without sacrificing the most important civil liberties.

eriposte :: 5:57 PM :: Comments (12) :: TrackBack (0) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!