THE WASHINGTON POST'S...

THE WASHINGTON POST'S POLL IS FLAWED. Let me get the fun part out of the way first. Here's an answer to Matt's question about the identity of Specialist (whose criticism, which has on occasion targeted yours truly, is indeed valuable and well-argued sometimes). "Specialist" is the code name for a secret team of a dozen White House interns targeting liberal blogs who have been chained to their desks in the basement of the West Wing and who suffer regular whippings at the hands of Tony Snow.

Seriously, there's also a very good answer to Mike's question: Why the heck did 63 percent of respondents to the Washington Post's poll initially find the controversial NSA program acceptable? Here's a possibility: The poll is seriously flawed.

Take a look at the poll itself. The key question comes after four other questions, each of which frames this purely as civil liberties vs. terrorism, with no mention of legality. And the question itself is framed that way, too. It reads:

It's been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

There are a few key words missing from this question. "Court order" are two of them. "Possibly illegal" are two more. The question of the program's legality -- which is anything but clear -- just doesn't come up. The result is that folks are simply asked to decide between safety and "privacy." Putting aside whether this is even a valid dichotomy to begin with, there's no indication whatsoever that the program may have no meaningful legal oversight at all and that it may be operating in utter legal darkness.

My bet is that the results would have been quite different if the question also contained this: "Some experts think this program may be illegal, because it seems to have been done without an order from the court which is meant to help ensure that such gathering of private information about American citizens is done with legal oversight. Would you consider..." etc.

As Ezra also notes, many people probably haven't thought this one through. They aren't helped in that regard when such crucial context is omitted. And it isn't the first time pollsters have failed to include it, either. The question of legality has also been missing from other mainstream polls taken after earlier NSA revelations. This glaring omission skews the results, and for professional pollsters, it's really indefensible.

--Greg Sargent

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