The MSM is certainly doing it's part to sustain the kerfuffle over the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts. USA Today is out with a poll suggesting that a majority of Americans, at second glance, have serious reservations about the agency's use of phone company records to establish patterns of activity that may be linked to possible terrorist cells. Last week, the paper was the first media outlet to reveal the existence of the data-mining program, which doesn't actually monitor phone calls, but (instead), looks for patterns in calls that are made and received within the United States. USA Today's survey comes on the heels of a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post which revealed strong support for the program.
It's no coincidence that the paper chose to do it's own survey, and release the results at this particular time. In the wake of last week's "exclusive" on the NSA data-mining effort, USA Today apparently wanted to increase public concerns about the program, which the paper suggests is a threat to civil liberties. Such perceptions will likely take center stage at the upcoming confirmation hearings of General Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee to run the CIA. As a former Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Hayden was instrumental in establishing both programs in the wake of 9-11. Opponents believe that Hayden's support for the surveillance and data-mining programs may be enough to torpedo his nomination.
John Hinderaker at Powerline has an excellent dissection of this media technique, "First Mislead, Then Poll." As he notes, the NSA surveillance program (disclosed by The New York Times last December) has been widely described as a domestic wire-tapping or spying program. In reality, the effort is aimed at international communications; at least one of the callers must be outside the CONUS. The data-mining operation utilizes information that is widely available; do a Google search on "phone records," and look a the number of services that pop up, offering to provide individual calling records, at a price.
So, what the MSM describes as a "domestic spying program" is actually an international collection effort, well within the NSA's legal and operational authority. And the phone records controversy is based on data that's available to almost anyone with a credit or debit card. But that hasn't stopped the press from couching the program in terms of a sinister effort ("a massive Pentagon database, containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens"), and the data-mining effort will quickly morph into another "secret spy program," just in time for the Hayden confirmation hearings, and the next round of Bush job performance polls.
From an ethical standpoint, I've always had problems with the media's habit of running a poll to generate a story. But it's even more disingenuous to run polls and write stories based on information that is misleading, and appears to support a particular political agenda. Consider the phrasing of some of the poll questions:
4. Is that mainly because you do not think the program seriously violates Americans’ civil liberties, (or is it mainly because) you think investigating terrorism is the more important goal, even if it violates some Americans’ civil liberties?
5. Do you think there would ever be circumstances in which it would be right for the government to create a database of telephone records, or would it not be right for the government to do this under any circumstances?
Not just "violates," but "seriously violates" Americans civil liberties. Talk about a leading question. Or, consider the reference to the phone records database. Never mind the fact that the government has maintained such databases for years, and they've been instrumental in convicting organized crime bosses--or, that such data is widely available to anyone with an internet connection or mailing address who wants it. So much for context.
These media techniques are also dangerous because they affect a much wider (and even more important) debate on the issue of domestic spying. Judge Richard Posner, one of the brightest minds on the federal bench (and an expert on intelligence) has a new book on the subject, due out this week. In his book (and an op-ed in today's Opinion Journal) , Judge Posner makes a persuasive case for a domestic spy agency, to conduct the type of intelligence work the MSM seems so dead-set against. As Posner notes, the lack of such an agency creates a serious gap in intelligence collection efforts, and our ability to wage a successful war on terror. We urgently need a reasoned, public debate on whether such an agency should be established, and its compatibility with our civil liberties. Unfortunately, outlets like USA Today seem content to poison the well of public sentiment before thta debate can take place.