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December 29, 2005

Trust, But Verify

Man, this is some insanely bad polling:

Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?
Yes 64%
No 23%

And I mean bad in both senses of the word. First, as John notes, these are bad numbers. I sure as hell think the NSA should listen in on suspected terrorists! Anyone going to make the contrarian case against it?

Good. So what's with the 24% against? You're telling me more folks support universal health care than the ability to spy on terrorists? No wonder we need to spy on ourselves -- we're a bunch of al-Qaeda sympathizers!

But beyond the weird numbers, this question is just bizarre (or, to use the right word, biased). It's like gauging support for Bush's tax cuts by asking "Should the President lower your tax burden while stimulating the economy, encouraging growth, and reducing the deficit?" The question is so utopian as to be nonsensical.

There is a question that needs to be asked, though, and it's answer would be illuminating. And despite what the rightwing spinmeisters are trying to argue, it's the only question in this case:

"Should the National Security Agency be allowed to secretly spy on Americans without any oversight?"

Or, alternately:

"Do you believe the NSA should be able to listen in on your phone calls and read your e-mails without oversight, probable cause, or a warrant?"

Those, and their permutations, are the only questions that deserve polling. There's no doubt the NSA should -- nay, must! -- tap the phones of suspected terrorists. The only issue is whether they are an agency unbound, freed from all judicial oversight and/or congressional constraint. Administration apparatchiks will try to twist it into a referendum on the president's authority to tap phones in the War on Terror. It's not. It's a referendum on whether any President should ever be trusted with the tools and authority of a totalitarian dictator.

Ronald Reagan used to love the phrase "trust, but verify." These days, I'm warming to it as well. Of course, Reagan was speaking of the Soviet Union, where dictators roamed, spied, and tortured unchecked. What a shame that it's become so applicable here at home.

Update: Minipundit has some ideas for future Rasmussen polls.

December 29, 2005 | Permalink

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» Conservative Media Bias from Minipundit
Ezra's right; this has got to be the most biased poll question ever: Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States? Yes 64% No [Read More]

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on that Rasmussen poll I quoted yesterday showing 64% support for NSA interception of calls between people in the U.S. and suspected terrorists overseas. The most common objection, and its one made by my own readers, is that the words &... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 29, 2005 8:13:33 AM

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Much has been made of the Rasmussen poll I cited yesterday from the timing of the poll (which would tend to hurt Republicans) to the absence of the word warrantless, which formulation advances the New York Times and attendant ... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 29, 2005 12:53:07 PM

Comments

Should the administration be allowed to spy on American citizens without any formal legislative or judiciary branch oversight?

Posted by: Gary Sugar | Dec 28, 2005 11:30:15 PM

"I sure as hell think the NSA should listen in on suspected terrorists! Anyone going to make the contrarian case against it?"

"Suspected" terrorists? As determined by what standard, on what probable cause, by what individual or group? Does these things matter to you, because it is not evident in the post or the polling question.

Or maybe only overseas? I guess I am not good at making "cases" or arguments, because it seems to me a matter of moral certainty that the case must be made in favor of bugging Assad's phone calls or reading Chirac's mail or placing a camera in Putin's bedroom rather than that the default be moral acceptability of those actions.

If we were to remain in the category of "known terrorists, sponsors, etc" you have a case. Sure, bug Osama. But when you say "suspected" terrorists, you have really kicked the gates all the way down.

Does the 4th amendment represent a general moral principle, a human right, or just a conditional contract? Americans have a right to privacy from US surveillance, but Brazilians don't? You would have no qualms about intercepting the phone calls of every Iraqi Sunni?

I seem to remember you, or your allies if you didn't post on it, having objections to the planting of propagandistic articles in Iraqi newspapers. Was this only on consequentialist or pragmatic grounds?

"Gentlemen don't spy" is considered a historically silly statement. But it source is the same kind of moral integrity as "Gentlemen don't torture."

Consider this just a response to your challenge.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 28, 2005 11:32:55 PM

While wiretapping is an important issue, the real question is this: should the executive branch have the power to usurp judicial authority in cases where the constitution clearly falls on the side of the judiciary?

If, as the President says, he will continue to tap without warrants, what's to stop him from deciding to write his own arrest warrants? What's to stop him from taking the entire procedural apparatus in place for the very instances that he seems to think are valid justifications for bypassing the judiciary, and throwing them out the window?

If the President discovers that he can get away with bypassing the courts for wiretaps, what's to stop him from deciding on some justification to bypass the courts altogether?

Posted by: Tony | Dec 28, 2005 11:55:45 PM

Not Just Wiretaps, or We're Already There

Laura Rozen

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 29, 2005 12:58:23 AM

"Should Rasmussen be allowed to profit from push polls?"

Posted by: ahem | Dec 29, 2005 1:29:15 AM

Should the president be allowed to spy on Americans by methods that are against the law for him to do so?

Posted by: justin | Dec 29, 2005 2:29:52 AM

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

I think this question is just not the issue that you would like raised. You would like the question to involve the question of the presidents power. Your objection is political.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 8:42:55 AM

No, my objection is procedural, or didn't you read the post (not to mention all my others)?

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 29, 2005 8:46:24 AM

No, my objection is procedural.....

Of course it is. It involves BUSH. But the question asked deliberately sidestepped this bias and went directly to the result. It was not about procedure. People were asked if they wanted this result and the overwhelming majority said "Yes, the NSA should spy on these conversations". The issue raised was not about procedure, it was about result.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 8:58:52 AM

Ezra, I'm not always sure that people being polled answer the question that is asked, but rather the question that they think is asked. I'm willing to bet that some percentage of the "no" answers were registered that way to vent their disapproval of the extra-judicial tapping.

That said, I do think the question sucks the way its written.

Posted by: pfc | Dec 29, 2005 9:04:57 AM

No end result can be extracted from the question, let alone whether one should.

Posted by: Adrock | Dec 29, 2005 9:58:56 AM

"The issue raised was not about procedure, it was about result."

No, it wasn't about result. if you do not include the fact that the wiretappings are done with no overisght or warrants, you exclude from consideration a whole range of possible results. This question is designed to not make people think about those possible result sets, and so it is not asking about the actual result set, it is asking about some theoretical result set.

Posted by: kevin | Dec 29, 2005 10:21:10 AM

I don't think that the question is great. The problems you mention with it are very real.

That said, your sample questions are worse.

I don't know that it is possible to create a 'balanced' question on this to get how Americans feel about the issue, it is complex enough that a one sentence question probably can't be made that addresses the issue properly.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Dec 29, 2005 10:45:15 AM

I think you are making this way too complicated.

By sidestepping the procedural, Rassmussen went to the "should" question, a different question altogether. "Should" could be with oversight, amendments, legislation, etc. The 'default' is not illegally tappeing these conversations. They just want to know if the voters think listening in is a good idea or a bad idea.

What you think is this somehow candy-coats the perceived privacy abuses alleged recently and gives comfort to the abusers. Do you think those polled and those reading those polls are too stupid to discriminate between these two issues.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 10:50:37 AM

Much thanks for the linkage, Ezra!

Posted by: Minipundit | Dec 29, 2005 12:19:33 PM

Several months ago, I received a telephone call at home from an outspoken black columnist at Las Vegas City Life, in response to my letter requesting that he devote a weekly column to abuses committed within the American criminal justice system. My reference was to arrests-without-warrants, surreptitious home entries, illegal FBI mail intercepts, and government collusion with the multi-billion dollar film industry (the biggest and most undisclosed scam around). WEe spoke for 55 minutes, freely and passionately. Throighout, we both noticed a telltale clicking sound, which grew louder and more frequent as we made particularly sharp comments. The columnist, Saab Lofton, was fired a couple weeks later. My name is Philip Lundquist and should someone visit Las Vegas and bring credulity and a capacity to brave some rough patches in presentation of these truths, I will stand behind what i have written here. Should these matters become fully known to the American people, much of the blase reactions to these government crimes and indecent senses of entitlement will surely go by the wayside.

Posted by: Philip Lundquist | Dec 29, 2005 1:55:41 PM

Fred, your attempt to turn this into an intense partisanship thing for Ezra is the most obvious projection I've ever seen.

Ezra, I imagine the 24% are responding to the question the way it should have been asked, given recent revelations.

Posted by: djw | Dec 29, 2005 1:58:23 PM

Fred, your attempt to turn this into an intense partisanship thing for Ezra is the most obvious projection I've ever seen.

This from guy whose blog lists Jefferson Davis as the third entry on his 10 Worst Americans list.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 3:26:32 PM

Well, whatever Jefferson Davis' prior goodnesses, wouldn't trying to dissolve the Union surely places him on such a list?

Posted by: TJ | Dec 29, 2005 3:32:32 PM

That's what I *LOVE* about coming to this blog. The extremists of all types come crawling out of the woodwork.

Tell us again how calling Jefferson Davis one of the worst Americans is not a radical and extremist's position? What politician, major news media or historical authority agrees with you?

Michael Moore (maybe)?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 3:42:43 PM

Dude, do you even know who he was?

Posted by: TJ | Dec 29, 2005 3:54:54 PM

I mean, how is it crazy to call the President of the Confederacy one of the worst Americans? You get your panties in a knot about people burning the flag or questioning the authority of the President to torture folks, but this guy was the executive of a group at war with the U.S.


Posted by: TJ | Dec 29, 2005 4:02:28 PM

Who said 'crazy'? I said politically extreme.

What percentile of the population agrees with you? What politician, major news media or historical authority agrees with you? Isn't that the definition of extremism? An outlier on the curve?

Show us why holding that view is not extremist?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 4:07:57 PM

Fred, that wasn't my post. I'd put him first.

Damn that Michael Moore. Not only is he fat, he probably thinks treason in defense of slavery isn't cool.

Posted by: djw | Dec 29, 2005 4:11:25 PM

Fred, that wasn't my post.

I know

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 29, 2005 4:15:47 PM

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