Poll’s lesson for NSA: Show that surveillance programs actually combat terrorism

Walter Pincus
Reporter November 10, 2013

Almost two-thirds of Americans with higher perceptions of terrorist threats said they would be willing to have the United States carry out assassinations of known terrorists “if it was necessary to combat terrorism,” according to a poll last month.

The survey about intelligence agencies was sponsored by Amy Zegart, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute.

Thirteen percent of respondents opposed U.S. personnel carrying out such an act, and 23 percent had no opinion.

In the poll of 1,000 people, conducted by YouGov from Oct. 5 to Oct. 7, 31 percent said they would be willing to have the United States kill leaders of countries that harbor terrorists, even though such assassinations are prohibited under a presidential executive order. The poll noted that 39 percent opposed our government killing foreign leaders, while 30 percent had no opinion.

On the Lawfare blog Thursday, Zegart wrote that her poll showed “Americans will give their government more leeway if they can be convinced counterterrorism tools are effective.”

She said the poll indicated, however, that the National Security Agency had not demonstrated that its phone and Internet data-collection programs were “necessary to combat terrorism” as it tried to deal with recent disclosures based on documents released to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

As Zegart put it, “What is currently missing in the NSA debate is a fulsome discussion that links those tools to the greater security they are supposed to provide.”

The poll also showed that despite all the recent testimony about the legality of the programs and the oversight governing them, the initial news reports generated misleading commentary and gave many Americans an inaccurate impression of what is involved in the NSA efforts:

●Thirty-nine percent of those questioned believe that the NSA’s bulk collection of all U.S. telephone records — the 215 metadata program — includes listening in to the contents of those calls. In fact, the NSA collects data on the numbers dialed and the length of calls, not their content.

●Almost one-third “believe NSA conducts operations to capture or kill foreign terrorists and another 39 percent were not sure.” The agency doesn’t do either.

●The poll also found that “35 percent believe NSA interrogates detainees and another 42 percent were not sure.” The NSA does not conduct interrogations.

The survey also shows that television and movies affect people’s opinions of reality.

“I found that the more people watched spy-themed television shows and movies, the more they liked the NSA, the more they approved of NSA’s phone and Internet collection programs, and the more they believed the NSA was telling them the truth,” Zegart wrote.

Specifically:

●A majority of people who in the past year watched at least six spy movies “had favorable views of NSA, but only 34 percent of infrequent spy moviegoers reported favorable views of the agency,” according to the poll.

●Forty-four percent of those who watched spy-themed TV shows frequently or occasionally approved of the NSA programs that collected telephone records and Internet data. By comparison, 29 percent of those who rarely watched such shows approved of the surveillance.

●When it came to whether NSA officials were being honest when they said the agency did not listen to phone calls as part of its metadata collection, 23 percent of frequent or occasional watchers of spy-focused TV shows were believers, while 15 percent of infrequent watchers thought officials were telling the truth.

Where does all this lead?

One finding of the study, according to Zegart, is that the Snowden disclosures have not only revealed once-secret activities, they have also led to a drop in public confidence “in the accuracy of the intelligence enterprise writ large.”

Zegart compared the answers from last month to those in a poll she sponsored a year ago. One question asked how confident people were about the accuracy of intelligence information given to the Obama administration on possible threats from places like Iran and North Korea; Zegart reported that the share of respondents who were “very confident” dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent. The number that were “not at all confident” rose from 8 percent to 11 percent.

One of Zegart’s final conclusions is that “NSA has shown its programs are legal. It has not shown that they are valuable.”

In short, she said, “the agency has not given a compelling or consistent account to the knowledgeable skeptic of how its programs are effective, efficient, and prudent in scope.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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