Skip to main content

Glenn Greenwald highlights Pew poll findings on Democrats but please also note what independents did
This isn't a piece about the merits of the NSA program, or whether the techies were right that there's no direct access or cooperation by the tech companies (if that's where you want to go, see How did mainstream media get the NSA PRISM story so hopelessly wrong? by Ed Bott and The PRISM Details Matter by Mark Jacquith but also read What Glenn Greenwald Got Wrong and still got the big picture right by Dan Nosowitz and a brief primer on Daily Kos by koNko, who includes important links from Wired and Ars Technica. And see the latest, NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants.) Update: Well, maybe not.

It isn't even a piece about whether you like or hate Glenn Greenwald (the link in this case is yes, no or who? from Guardian readers) or think Edward Snowden is a traitor or a patriot. Or Daniel Ellsberg. Or whether Daniel Ellsberg thinks Snowden is a patriot. Or whether you remember who Daniel Ellsberg is. Ellsberg, btw, worked for RAND at the time he released the Pentagon papers, just as Snowden worked for Booz Allen. "Disaffected military contractor" isn't a new story. And focusing on the leakers isn't new, either, even when the real story is what they told us and not who they are.

This also isn't a piece about the best way for journalists to do their job. For that, try Jay Rosen, who discusses how having a political perspective does not invalidate reporting, it's just a different model. I like that piece, of course, because it's my model, but whatever.

Okay, you have an opinion about the above, and I haven't said much yet, but no, none of that, even though it's all part of the story. What I want to look at today is what the polls tell us about the general public. And also what they don't.

Follow us below the fold.

Before we really get into it, here's the most important stat from the same Pew poll that highlights attitudes about the NSA story: only a quarter of the population are paying close attention, at least as of June 6-9.

The economy remains a greater interest issue.

This is an issue with all opinion polling. For those who are not following closely, they'll to a great extent get their cues from the political parties they belong to. In this case, Congressional politicians from both sides of the aisle (e.g., Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham) have generally supported the program, blunting some of the partisanship.

That, perhaps, is part of the reason why indies in the top graphic are more with the program in 2013 than in 2006. In fact, though Glenn is right to highlight the big swing in Democrats from 2006, what struck me most is that all of the political groups support the program in 2013, at least the way Pew asked about it. Republicans are a plus 5 (acceptable minus not acceptable), Democrats are a plus 30(!) and independents are a plus 9, showing them to be closer to Republicans than Democrats on this question.

Another thing that matters greatly, and may be more than simply a style point, is the wording of the Pew polls from 2006 to now. In 2006, the question was "secretly listening... without court approval" whereas in 2013, the question states "NSA has been getting secret court orders". Does getting a court order, even a secret one, make a difference? 2006 was a plus 4 (acceptable minus not acceptable), even with it being without a court order and 2013 is a plus 15.

It isn't a pure comparison, though, since 2006 just asked about calls and 2013 asked also about emails as well as calls. Funnily enough, emails are asked about separately in this poll, and folks are less happy about monitoring emails than phone calls. And it's independents who are most unhappy about it, Democrats most okay. That graphic really shows the flip in partisan thought from 2006 to now, by the way. But because the email program is less popular than the phone monitoring (it gets a minus 2 overall), it's hard to argue that by adding it to the question, it raised approval; if anything a less popular program should have lowered approval.

Now, there are a host of other polls besides Pew, and Glenn Greenwald helpfully summarized some of them:

A Time Magazine poll found that 54% of Americans believe Snowden did "a good thing", while only 30% disagreed.  That approval rating is higher than the one enjoyed by both Congress and President Obama. While a majority think he should be nonetheless prosecuted, a plurality of young Americans, who overwhelmingly view Snowden favorably, do not even want to see him charged. Reuters found that more Americans see Snowden as a "patriot" than a "traitor". A Gallup poll this week found that more Americans disapprove (53%) than approve (37%) of the two NSA spying programs revealed last week by the Guardian.
There's more than that, as well. For example, here's Huffington Post about their YouGov poll:
According to the new poll, 38 percent of Americans think that Snowden releasing top-secret information about government surveillance programs to the media was the right thing to do, while 35 percent said it was the wrong thing. Twenty-eight percent said they weren't sure...

But the respondents to the HuffPost/YouGov poll [.pdf] who said they were paying the most attention to the leak story were more likely to say they thought Snowden had done the right thing. Among those who said they had "heard a lot" about the story [my bold], 50 percent said that they thought Snowden had done the right thing, and 34 percent said he had done the wrong thing. Those who said they had "heard a little" were more critical, with 41 percent saying that Snowden had done the wrong thing and 33 percent saying he had done the right thing.

Overall, 42 percent of respondents said they had heard a lot about the story, 42 percent said that they had heard a little, and 16 percent said that they had heard nothing at all.

Remember we said that paying attention matters? It does. And perhaps more people are paying attention this week than last. Not everyone is, though, and readers of this blog, especially, are likely not representative of the population as a whole. That's neither good nor bad, but keep it in mind when you evaluate what the public thinks.

Finally, Chris Bowers highlights another important aspect of polling: are we talking about ordinary citizens or those who are suspected of terrorism?  Chris uses yet another poll, CBS, for this:

If you say the NSA is collecting phone records of ordinary Americans, then public opinion is solidly against what the NSA is doing. But if you just change "ordinary Americans" to "Americans the government suspects of terrorist activity," then the public is overwhelmingly in favor.
Note that the wording for all the polls can be found at

I'll argue with Chris' headline (The simple change in wording that shows why you should ignore polls on the NSA leak) and say that rather than ignoring them, pay attention to what they are asking. In fact, I would go further and point to this helpful 2006 Mark Blumenthal piece, which also shows a 2006 CBS poll divergence just as Chris Bowers highlighted for 2013:

"If we read a bit beyond the face value of each poll result, we can see evidence of a large number of Americans that feel strongly cross-pressured on issues of protecting privacy and investigating terrorism...The most clear-cut evidence of the underlying cross-pressure comes from two questions with nearly identical wording... asked on last week's CBS News poll: 'To reduce the threat of terrorism,' 69% said they would be willing to allow the government to monitor the communications of 'Americans the government is suspicious of.' At the same time, on a question with nearly identical wording, only 30% would be willing to allow the government to monitor the communications of 'ordinary Americans on a regular basis' in order to combat terrorism. The lesson we could all stand to learn here is that on issues of public policy no single question provides a precise, 'scientific' measure of the truth. The most accurate read of public opinion usually comes from comparing the sometimes conflicting results of many different questions on many different polls and understanding the reasons for those differences." [my bold]
Americans have nuanced opinons on this issue, and polling hints at what they really think. Wording matters in how you answer. Paying attention to the story matters in how you answer. It's a stew of partisan leanings, and gut feeling as to whether court orders matter, and whether you are attacking Obama or the program itself, and most of all whether you are talking about me or thee.

As it happens, not all that much has changed in public opinion since 2006. So, keep all of that in mind when you read the headlines.

NEW TIME POLL: Support for the Leaker—and His Prosecution (TIME)

More Americans see man who leaked NSA secrets as 'patriot' than traitor: Poll(Reuters)

Americans Disapprove of Government Surveillance Programs (Gallup)

Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic (Pew)

NSA Leaks Poll Finds Americans Divided Over Edward Snowden's Actions (Huffington Post)

and my sentimental favorite:

POLLSTER UPDATE - Do Americans Support Surveillance? It Depends On How You Ask (HuffPost pollster)

Try and read beyond the headlines, and don't assume Americans have made up their minds about a program many of them don't know that much/enough about—or that they'll all hate it or love it when they do. And see whether new revelations about eavesdropping without warrants changes anything.

In that regard, I hearken to two things. One is an observation by David Lightman, writing for McClatchy:

The public’s views have been evolving over the past week and a half. When news broke earlier this month that the National Security Agency could tap data from phone and Internet companies, most people accepted the tradeoff between security and privacy. Members of Congress routinely defended the programs.

Not anymore. By week’s end, polls suggested a groundswell of concern and lawmakers were hearing from constituents. Conversations at the Capitol had a new hue: Sure, the government says it has safeguards in place so it won’t listen to my calls and read my emails – but can it ever really control some rogue operator? And where is all that data? Who’s in charge?

A different view is from veteran correspondent Walter Pincus:
Was there any follow-up in the mainstream media to [James] Bamford’s disclosure [in Wired, March 2012], or anything close to the concerns voiced on Capitol Hill this past week? No.

That’s because the American public at large is more accepting of the government’s involvement in their lives — along with Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple — than is Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old who leaked the highly classified NSA documents. He appears to believe the public is unaware, and, as he told the Guardian, knowing “what’s happening, you [meaning the public] should decide whether we should be doing this.”

I believe the public has decided.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program, which ought to be discussing those questions and not the personalities.

Good luck with that.


Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site