Where Do Americans Stand on the Wiretapping Issue?

by Frank Newport

Despite differences in question wording, it appears that Americans tilt toward favoring the program

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Just what do Americans think about the Bush administration's wiretapping program? A review of available poll data suggests that the public is closely split on the issue, with the majority of recent polls showing a slight majority favoring the program.

Although the concept of wiretapping stretches back decades in American history (Gallup has records of poll questions asking about wiretapping in the late 1940s), the public has known about the current use of wiretapping in relationship to the war on terrorism for just a matter of months. Thus, unlike issues such as abortion or gay marriage, which have been subjects of public debate for years, the Bush wiretapping program is an issue on which the public is still collecting information and, at least in theory, is still forming its opinion.

The fact that arguments for and against the wiretapping program focus on two powerful principles -- defending the nation against terrorism and protecting the privacy rights of individuals -- adds to the complexity of this issue

It is reasonable to assume that when Americans are asked about the wiretapping program, they are sensitive to cues in the question wording that stress one or the other of these dimensions. As a result, different ways of asking about the program could, in theory, quite easily yield different response patterns.

A review of questions asked on wiretapping across a number of polling organizations over the last month or two shows that while there is some variation in public opinion on the issue, it is not as large as might be expected. In other words, despite the newness of the issue, attitudes appear to be generally similar regardless of how the question is asked. The data from a number of different questions suggest that the American public is roughly divided on the wiretapping issue, with the most recent survey results suggesting a slight tilt toward approval of the program.

How Is It Explained to Respondents?

When an issue becomes well-known throughout the population, there is no need for pollsters to explain it in detail. If the wiretapping controversy continues to be in the news in the months ahead, at some point pollsters will simply ask: "Do you approve or disapprove of the Bush's administration's wiretapping program?" without elaboration.

But pollsters -- including Gallup -- do not believe that point has been reached yet. Most wiretapping questions have in one way or another attempted to explain the situation in some detail before asking the public's opinion.

The standard way of figuring out the effect of different question wordings is to conduct controlled experiments. Gallup has conducted hundreds of these over the years -- randomly assigning split halves of the sample into two groups, each using different question wording. If there is a statistically significant difference in the response patterns of the two groups, it is reasonable to assume the causality for the differences is the wording that was varied between the two questions.

In the current situation, it appears that only the CBS News/New York Times poll has conducted a controlled experiment on the wiretapping issue, as follows:

Version A: After 9/11, President Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants, saying this was necessary in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. Do you approve or disapprove of the president doing this?

Approve

Disapprove

Unsure

%

%

%

53

46

1

Version B: After 9/11, George W. Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants. Do you approve or disapprove of George W. Bush doing this?

Approve

Disapprove

Unsure

%

%

%

46

50

4

In Version A, the CBS News/New York Times poll provided a rationale for the wiretapping program: "… saying this was necessary in order to reduce the threat of terrorism." This version generated a slight majority approval. The version without that rationale found a slight plurality disapproving.

These results suggest that question wording makes a difference, but not a large one. Explicitly calling the respondents' attention to the terrorism threat increased the percentage approving of wiretapping from 46% to 53%, while decreasing the disapproval level just four percentage points from 50% to 46%.

There have been numerous other polls reported since the wiretapping became public, and all have used at least somewhat different wording. (None of them, however, were controlled experiments.)

To illustrate, here is a list of the four areas in which wording variation can be grouped, followed by a list of the different ways polling organizations have phrased their questions in that area:

Verb:

  • approve/disapprove
  • wrong/right
  • acceptable/unacceptable
  • should/should not have
  • should not/should be allowed

Description of the nature of the wiretapping:

  • "… monitor telephone and e-mail communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties"
  • "… using wiretaps to listen to telephone calls between suspected terrorists in other countries and American citizens in the United States"
  • "… wiretapping telephone conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries"
  • "… secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails between some people in the United States and other countries"
  • "… government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S."
  • "… monitor electronic communications of suspected terrorists ... even if one end of the communication is in the United States"
  • "… monitoring phone and Internet communications between American citizens in the United States and suspected terrorists"

Description of possible illegalities of undertaking this specific type of wiretapping:

  • "… without first obtaining permission from the courts"
  • "… without getting a court order to do so"
  • "… without obtaining a court order"
  • "… without first getting court approval to do so"
  • "… without getting court warrants"
  • "… without getting warrants"
  • "… without a warrant"

Description of the responsible actor:

  • President Bush
  • George W. Bush
  • The National Security Agency
  • Bush administration
  • The government
  • The president

All of these descriptive variants have been included in one combination or the other in recent wiretapping questions.

The table lists a number of the recent wiretapping questions, with exact wording and dates of interviewing, ranked by the percentage giving a positive response. In all instances, the most recent asking by a firm is reported:

Polling
Organization

Dates of
Inter-viewing

Exact Question Wording

Percentage Positive
Toward Wire-
tapping
Program

Percentage Negative
Toward Wire-
tapping
Program

ABC/
Washington Post

Jan 23-26, 2006

As you may know, the National Security Agency has been investigating people suspected of involvement with terrorism by secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails between some people in the United States and other countries, without first getting court approval to do so. Would you consider this wiretapping of telephone calls and e-mails without court approval as an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?


56%

43%

Fox News/
Opinion Dynamics

Feb 7-8, 2006

Do you think the president should or should not have the power to authorize the National Security Agency to monitor electronic communications of suspected terrorists without getting warrants, even if one end of the communication is in the United States?


54% (registered voters)

40% (registered voters)

Pew

Feb 1-5, 2006

Do you think it is generally right or generally wrong for the government to monitor telephone and e-mail communications of Americans suspected of having terrorist ties without first obtaining permission from the courts?


54%

43%

NBC/Wall Street
Journal

Jan 26-29, 2006

As you may know, since 2002, the Bush Administration has been using wiretaps to listen to telephone calls between suspected terrorists in other countries and American citizens in the United States without getting a court order to do so. Do you approve or disapprove of the Bush Administration's approach on this issue?


51%

46%

AP/Ipsos

Feb 6-8, 2006

Should the Bush Administration be required to get a warrant from a judge before monitoring phone and Internet communications between American citizens in the United States and suspected terrorists, or should the government be allowed to monitor such communications without a warrant?


50%

48%

CNN/USA Today/
Gallup

Feb 9-12, 2006

As you may know, the Bush Administration has been wiretapping telephone conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries without getting a court order allowing it to do so. Do you think the Bush Administration was right or wrong in wiretapping these conversations without obtaining a court order?

47%

50%



Bottom Line

The data suggest four conclusions:

  • Although it is impossible to determine the precise effect of different question wording on the measurement of public opinion about wiretapping, it appears polls that reference "the National Security Agency" or "the government" may elicit a higher positive response than those that reference the Bush administration by name.
  • Regardless of wording, the preponderance of the most recent polling evidence on wiretapping shows at least a plurality, if not a small majority, of Americans favor or approve of the program.
  • Regardless of wording, it appears that attitudes on this issue are fairly well-grounded, with variation in the percentage approving of wiretapping varying across a range of less than 10 percentage points.
  • All of this suggests that if the wiretapping program were put to a national referendum, it would be close, that the results might well depend on just how the issue was phrased and framed in the referendum wording, but with the probability that it would be a positive vote.
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