Friday, May 12, 2006

NSA Poll: Shame on WaPo

Do a majority of Americans really think unlimited government access to phone records is okay by them?

If the Washington Post can be believed, "Most Americans Support NSA's Efforts." In an overnight poll conducted by WaPo and ABC News, "63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort," Not surprisingly, WaPo doesn't tell us what the poll questions actually were or what the multiple choice answers were. It does, however, admit at the bottom of the article that: "A total of 502 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday night for this survey. Margin of sampling error is five percentage points for the overall results. The practical difficulties of doing a survey in a single night represents another potential source of error."

I want to talk to the statistician who claims that 502 randomly selected adults, called at home at night, who may or may not have been familiar with the story or the issues involved, or have understood the questions, can give an accurate snapshot of what "Americans" actually think within any margin of error. What pool of "adults" were the 502 polled selected from? The same pool that logs online to vote in those instant polls that ask, "Do you believe Nancy Holloway is still alive?"

WaPo's Richard Morin is on MSNBC with Natalie Allen echo chambering the poll results. He's making all kinds of claims about what the poll says without giving any granularity as to how it was conducted. And the rest of the talking heads are citing the poll results as if they were Gospel truth.

We need to start insisting on transparency in poll reporting. Who was polled, what questions were asked, what the answer choices were, and an honest assessment of any given poll's statistical accuracy.

As best one can tell from the information WaPo has provided, the overnight poll on the NSA call database story has no scientific legitimacy whatsoever.

Shame on them for even publishing it, and shame on the news networks for giving it legitimacy.


Hey, here's a poll question for you: who has less credibility, WaPo or the Bush administration?


  1. I don't know Jeff. They did an telephone poll here locally and came up with 80-something percent who didn't care that NSA was doing this. I didn't see the questions for that one, but it would not surprise me on bit if the majority of people (60-70%) were perfectly fine with this. Anecdotally, that seems about right.

    You're talking about the American people here, Jeff. Do you really find it that hard to believe that 60% of them couldn't care less about this? I don't.

  2. Before anyone leaps to the wrong conclusion, let me clarify that I'm not saying the WaPo poll (or the one done here locally) are correct. I'm just saying it wouldn't suprise me in the least if they were. Would it surprise anyone?

    This is less invasive than the NSA warantless wiretapping, and you had a slight majority approving of that (something like 53% wasn't it - ABC/WaPo, and 51% NBC/WJS?).

  3. I agree with the badic premise of your post Jeff. (I'm on record with my contempt for the WaPo with Fred Hiatt at the helm.) However, let's be plain here: Today the Post also published an Op-Ed by one of their columnists (Eugene Robinson) that is quite blunt.

    In an unsigned editorial today WaPo also concedes that the NSA domestic monitoring is far more extensive than as been admitted by the Bush malAdministration, and asks the logical question: "How much more don't we know?"

    As a side note they also come down fairly positively on the side of law in the matter of Alfonso Jackson using political loyalty as a means test for D of Ed business.

    As you note, the devil is in the details. It might well have been an imperfectly worded poll. I think if the same people were polled in another 2 or 3 days,after some more media exposure, with the same question, the results might be quite different. Because of our pathetically flawed media, Americans are as poorly informed about world matters as some cargo cult tribe in Papua-New Guinea.

  4. Lurch:

    Have you heard anything about who knew about this latest NSA activity? I heard a Senator on the Intelligence Committee say yesterday that they were aware of it (which sort of undermines Democratic claims that it has been done in 'secret').

    if they knew and didn't see fit to tell anyone, then what is their responsibility in this?

    Another good question, I suppose, is this: it isn't reasonable for the public to know every single thing that the goverment does, particularly in intelligence matter, so is the fact that our elected representatives are informed a sufficient check? I tend to say no in most cases.

    For the record, I'm opposed to the NSA activity.

  5. What good does it do to say a small segment of our elected representatives (8) have knowledge of the matter when they can't say or do anything about it because it's SECRET!

  6. Jeff:

    What do you mean "can't?" If they feel that the NSA is abusing its authority and breaking the law, they most certainly can do something about it. They can make it public.

  7. Oh, Scott, look at what's happened to all the intel types who have been flayed alive over that very sort of thing. The LCOL who outed Able Danger almost lost his retirement.


    I haven't seen the editorial yet, but the thing is, nobody is talking on the cable head news about the editorial. They're talking about the poll.

  8. The things that are scaring me today are:
    - If the poll is correct, the amazing complacency of the American public (born out of ignorance of how great this country can and should be?), and
    - the disregard for the legal roles and missions of and checks on the intel community owing to the whole "Because we can" mindset.
    Jeff, didn't you comment recently on being "outraged out?"
    983 days to go.

  9. Scott: as to who knew about this before this latest scandal took off: I knew about it. I knew about it months ago, IIRC and am pretty certain I mentioned it to Jeff, as well as discussing it, somewhat briefly, over where I blog. It was obvious to anyone who cared to add uo the numbers.

    In fact, anyone with a working brain and a slightly developed cynicism gland knew about it. Now, let's be clear about this: Bu$hCo is deliberately being as secretive as possible because this latest revelation about ALL Americans telephone calls and emails and computer activity is only the threshold of what's happened, and will happen.

    As for that Senator on the Intelligence Committe, I bet you my condom factory in North Carolina that no Dems and very, very few Repubs have been briefed in on this.

    And no, I disagree with you once again. It is quite reasonable that the public know what this administration is doing because we've alreadys een they get away with too much uncostitutional and illegal shit, thanks to a bought-off electronic media. These people cannot be trusted. This is the second time around for most of them. They almost succeeded in destroying a democratic America in the 70s.

    And the proof of the fact that they've been bought off is obvious in Jeff's comment about the talking parrots discussing the poll, rather than the facts underlying the need for a quickly created camouflage poll.

  10. Lurch:

    Actually I think you're agreeing with me, because I said it is not enough that our elected representatives know about it.

    But according to the Senator I heard (I'll see if I can track down who it was), and who is on the Intelligence Committee, the entire committee was aware of this, which means that some democrats did in fact know about it.

    As for Constitutionality, I'm not sure this latest action by NSA is unconstitutional, although I disagree with them taking it. They asked and the companies gave them the bulk of info regarding phone calls. It might be difficult to show that this was unconstitutional.

  11. The Constitution notwithstanding, isn't this domestic activity well outside NSA's statutory lane?

  12. nav130:

    That's a good point. It may well be. I haven't looked at the NSA statutes in a while, so I'm not up on exactly what authority is provided to the agency, but it seems to me their domestic authority was rather limited.

  13. Some talkin head has been saying that the courts ruled some time ago that phone records are not covered under the "right to privacy" implications of the Fourth Amendment. I'm looking around for that court ruling.

  14. Jeff:

    And apart from that, even if they are covered there is a difference between getting a whole mass of data and specifically targeting individual phones. For example, the government can fly over a city (e.g. in a police copter) and observe the general flow of traffic. This isn't a constitutional violation. But if they start tracking a specific car to see where the drive is going, they're arguably going to need a warrant to do that. Likewise, if the police set up a roadblock and stop every car that comes through as part of a generalized effort to check for drunk drivers, they can do that (with some limitations), but if they set up a roadblock looking specifically for me, then they're going to need probably cause to sustain it and to stop me.

    In this case, not only are the records being handed over voluntarily by the companies, they contain ALL of that companies generic data regarding phone numbers. Not likely to be a constitutional violation or require a warrant. But if the data shows something that makes the NSA zero in on a specific phone number, and they decide they want to look further into that specific number and the person who makes calls from there, they're going to need to get a warrant to proceed (constitutionally anyway - whether they will or not, who knows).

  15. Well, Scott, in fact we do disagree. I'd recommend you track down the writings of Jonathan Turley, or read the several recent interviews of him. He's a professor at George Washungton, and is considered by all knowledgable observers and experts to be one of the three most proficient Constitutional specialists in the country.

    He's flat out stated this entire exercise is extra-consitutional.

  16. Lurch:

    I know exactly who Jonathan Turley is. I don't see an article by him on this particular issue (doing a quick Google search). Perhaps you have a link?

  17. PS: I found quite a bit from him about the NSA wiretapping, which is clearly unconstitutional in my view, but not much from him on the current flap.

  18. Scott, here's one quick link. Turley was on MSGOP's "Countdown" last night.

    The actual written transcriot is readily available, I'm sure.

  19. Errr.. all this grey hair is making me forgetful. Turley was also on the Randi Rhodes show today.

    Now I listen to it live, but since there's a hotlink (Hour 1 GUEST) there might be audio, and will probably be a transcript there, too.

  20. Jeff: Six in 10 young Americans between 18-24 cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. 66% didn't know the catastrophic 2005 earthquake killed 70k people in Pakistan. 40% can't place Pakistan in Asia. 33% can't find Louisiana. (National Geographic) Just how do you expect 500 respondents called at night in the middle of American Idol to be concerned about the NSA?

  21. Scott:

    Offhand I'd say there's a big privacy issue difference between monitoring road traffic and monitoring road traffic, but I'm not sure what previous court rulings have said on the subject.


    I just happened to catch the Turley gig on Talkdown. There's not a whole lot of question where he stands on the NSA subject, and on the presidential powers subject in general. Thank goodness there's at least one constitutional law expert who isn't in the administration's pocket.


    I can't expect them to be concerned abut the NSA at all. Heck, no, not if they're watching American Idol.

  22. Lurch:

    Been gone this weekend - looking at the links now.


    "At least one" constitutional law expert not in the admin's pocket? Get a grip on yourself - most Constitutional law experts are against this administration. Your ideas of vast conspiracies between the admin and virtually everyone else in the nation (god forbid anyone independently agree with the admin, I mean they MUST be in the admin's pocket, right?) are way over the top.

  23. Lurch:

    Thanks for the link. I see what turley is saying and I think he's right. I was approaching it from a different angle - i.e. whether the Constitution flat-out forbids what the President is doing.

    From what I gathered from Turley's comments, he's saying this is illegal because it is not within the Executive's authority to do it, and Congress has not given the President authority (and in fact Congress has gone the other way). I think he makes a good point. That said, his viewpoint is not that the Constitution is a complete bar to this, then, because if Congress gave the authority to do it (via statute for example), then it seems to me Turley's argument disappears. So I guess the actions may be "illegal" but are not per se "unconstitutional." Does that distinction make sense.

    By contrast, I think the NSA wiretapping we found out about last December is flat-out unconstitutional, meaning that even if Congress purported to give the President the authority to do it, it would be illegal because Congress can't contravene the Constitution.

    Lastly, at the risk of sounding my own horn, since we're talking about Turley's credentials, which are good and I think everyone in the field knows of them, I should point out that I graduated in the top of my law school class, was on the editorial board of the Law Review, and was also taught Constitutional Law at the college level. So even though I don't have a national name like Turley (nor do I have his expertise - he is one of the foremost authorities) I'm not entirely without knowledge on this particular subject :)

  24. I'm comforted that you agree with my assessment of the situation, and that Prof Turley agrees with me. LOL

    Over at the online magazine where I contribute, I've been torn between describing the Bush malAdministration's actions 'illegal' and extra- constitutional.' In these circumstances the two terms are somewhat interchangable, granted. but I tend towards 'extra-constitutional' as a description solely because it firmly anchors the discussion where it properly should be: the usurpation of other branches powers by the Executive.

  25. Maybe it's time to repost my "Smoke, Mirrors and War Powers."

  26. Lurch:

    Yeah, I think that's a good way to phrase it. Even if it "would" be Constitutional if Congress authorized it, one can characterize it not only as illegal (since it wasn't authorized) and extra-constitutional because the executive is usurping a legislative role.

    Interesting times, no?

  27. Ummm...intereesting times, Pai Mei.

    And yeah, Jeff, an updateed article is definitely in order.

  28. As an interesting statistical aside, there are materials online for calculating sample sizes for statistical purposes (psychological associations; statistical associations), and at a 95% confidence level, with an error margin of 4.5%, assuming a U.S. population of 280,000,000, you need 474 adults :) I guess we're up closer to 300,000,000 now, but run the numbers yourself...