NSA Surveillance Scandal: The Polls Are In, and NSA Spying is Really, Really Unpopular


If you have been following the recent disclosures of NSA domestic surveillance, you might have noticed a wave of media reports a week after the first disclosures claiming something like, “The Majority of Americans Still Don't Care About the NSA Spying on Them.” Further examples can be seen here, here and here. If you were skeptical about the polling data cited in support of these headlines, you were right. The polls cited as evidence of these claims were wildly misleading and have since been flatly contradicted by the overwhelming majority of relevant polling data. 

These headlines largely relied on two polls, one by Pew Research and the other by ABC/Washington Post. The Pew Research poll, taken between June 6 and June 9, asked whether Americans thought it was acceptable for the NSA “to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” Fifty-six percent of people found this acceptable. In response to a similar question, a second Pew Research poll on June 12-16 found Americans were equally divided regarding their approval of “the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.” Unfortunately, neither survey distinguished between surveillance of terrorism suspects and ordinary Americans. Thus, it is impossible to tell whether the respondents approved of collecting the cell phone records for those not suspected of terrorism, or whether they merely approved of collecting this data for terrorism suspects. Emily McClintock Elkins, director of polling for the Reason Foundation, reached a similar conclusion in her recent critique of the NSA polling data.  As the relevant issue is whether the NSA’s phone-records dragnet should extend to non-suspects, Pew Research offers little insight as to how Americans feel about their government spying on them. 

The ABC/Washington Post poll, conducted between June 12 and June 16, asked the following question: “It's been reported that the federal government’s National Security Agency collects extensive records of phone calls, as well as Internet data related to specific investigations, to try to identify possible terrorist threats. Do you support or oppose this intelligence-gathering program?” Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they supported this program. However, just like the Pew Research poll, the question does not say whether this program collects data on all Americans, or just those suspected of terrorism. Indeed, the mere reference to “extensive records” is insufficient to alert the respondent that the NSA is collecting phone records for almost every single American. This poll is useless in answering the critical issue, i.e. whether people support intelligence gathering on Americans who are not terrorism suspects. When the questions expressly distinguish between surveillance of ordinary Americans and Americans suspected of terrorism, a clear majority of Americans are opposed to the NSA’s surveillance of non-suspects. 

For example, a Rasmussen poll taken June 6-7 asked the following question: “The federal government has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans for national security purposes regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing. Do you favor or oppose the government’s secret collecting of these phone records?” Rasmussen specifically asks whether they support surveillance of those not suspected of terrorism. Not surprisingly, 59% of voters oppose collecting telephone records of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing.

As further evidence of this trend, a YouGov poll taken on June 6-7 asked whether “collecting and analyzing Americans’ phone records is justified as a way to combat terrorism, or is it an unnecessary intrusion into Americans’ lives?” Like the Rasmussen poll, the distinction between surveillance of terrorism suspects and intrusions upon the privacy of ordinary Americans is clear. As expected, a solid majority (55%) stated such surveillance was an unnecessary intrusion into American lives. Only 22% of respondents thought it was justified. 

Similarly, a June 9-10 CBS News poll found that “most Americans disapprove (58%) of the government collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans, but approve (75%) of its monitoring those suspected of terrorist activity.” This poll further confirms that Americans recognize an important distinction between surveillance directed at terrorism suspects, and dragnet surveillance of ordinary citizens. 

Virtually every other poll validates the critical fact evidenced by the Rasmussen, YouGov, and CBS polls: Americans are strongly opposed to being spied on by their own government. A Guardian/PPP poll taken June 10-11 revealed that 50% of Americans oppose the government collecting their phone and Internet meta-data, while only 40% approve. A Gallup poll taken on June 10-11 reported that 53% of Americans disapprove of the NSA’s domestic surveillance, while only 37% expressed their approval. In a FOX News poll conducted between June 22-24, 61% of Americans disapproved of how the administration “is handling the government's classified surveillance program that collects the phone and Internet records of U.S. citizens.”

Of course, public perception of these programs is bound to fluctuate as further information is revealed and the NSA programs are explained in greater detail. At the moment however, we must disabuse ourselves of the false premise that Americans approve of their government secretly collecting, storing, and spying on the phone calls and internet activity of citizens who are not terrorism suspects. No evidence supports this claim, and in fact, the relevant polling data shows the majority of Americans soundly reject the surveillance of non-terrorism suspects. 

Those who suggest otherwise are probably as honest as James Clapper.