Two new polls released Monday paint conflicting pictures of reactions to revelations of the National Security Agency's collection of the phone records of millions of Americans.
According to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, 55 percent of Americans think collecting and analyzing Americans' phone records is "an unnecessary intrusion into Americans' lives," while 22 percent say that it is "justified to combat terrorism." By a 41 percent to 25 percent margin, a plurality of poll respondents said that collecting and analyzing Americans' phone records is an ineffective way of combating terrorism.
But a Pew Research Center/Washington Post survey released Monday found that 56 percent of Americans say it’s acceptable for the NSA to get secret court orders to track the calls of millions of Americans in order to investigate terrorism, while 41 percent say it isn’t acceptable.
Both surveys found that most Americans are paying relatively little attention to the story, which, as the Pew Research Center's Michael Dimock recently pointed out, makes survey results particularly susceptible to differences that are most likely caused by initial reactions to question wording, rather than pre-existing opinions.
Only 36 percent of respondents to the HuffPost/YouGov poll said that they had heard a lot about the NSA obtaining phone records of Verizon customers, while another 40 percent said they had heard a little and 24 percent said that they had heard nothing at all. Similarly, in the Post/Pew survey, just 27 percent of respondents said that they were following the story "very closely."
The two polls used different wording to ask respondents about the government data collection. The Post/Pew question pointed specifically to a court order (albeit a secret one) and said that the program tracked "millions of Americans." The HuffPost/YouGov poll, on the other hand, noted in a previous question that the NSA was obtaining the records of all customers of Verizon, before asking if the program was "justified to combat terrorism" or "an unnecessary intrusion."
HuffPost/YouGov: How much have you heard about the National Security Agency obtaining records of all U.S. Verizon customers -- collecting who people call and for how long, not each call’s content? // Do you think collecting and analyzing Americans’ phone records is justiﬁed as a way to combat terrorism, or is it an unnecessary intrusion into Americans’ lives?
Post/Pew: As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?
The HuffPost/YouGov question asking whether the program was justified or an unnecessary intrusion also followed a question on whether tracking Americans' phone records was an effective or ineffective way of combatting terrorism, perhaps calling into question for respondents whether the program was was worthwhile, given its potential effectiveness.
While the two surveys differed in terms of how respondents reacted to the NSA program, they found similar patterns in how respondents’ reactions were divided by partisan affiliation.
In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, Republicans and independents were most likely to say that collecting Americans' phone records is unnecessarily intrusive, by a 65 percent to 17 percent margin for Republicans and by a 62 percent to 17 percent margin for independents. But Democrats in the poll were more divided, with 39 percent saying it is unnecessarily intrusive and 33 percent saying it is justified to combat terrorism.
In the Pew/Post poll, majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all supported the NSA monitoring, but Democrats were by far the most likely to do so. Sixty-four percent of Democrats called the surveillance acceptable, compared with 53 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans.
In contrast, a similar ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in 2006 during the Bush administration -- after similar revelations that the government was collecting Americans' phone and email data -- found that 75 percent of Republicans and just 37 percent of Democrats said it was acceptable for the NSA to "secretly [listen] in on phone calls and [read] emails without court approval."
The newest Post/Pew poll found more generally that Americans value protection against terrorism over privacy concerns by a nearly two-to-one margin, with 62 percent saying it’s more important to investigate terrorist threats, and 34 percent saying it’s more important not to intrude on privacy.
The Post/Pew poll surveyed 1,004 adults by phone on June 6-9.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted June 6-7 among 1,000 adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.