Mitchell mischaracterized NSA surveillance program, polling

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

NBC's Andrea Mitchell claimed that recent polls on President Bush's authorization of warrantless wiretapping showed "little public outcry over the program, especially when [the administration] tell[s] people it is limited only to those who talk to Al Qaeda." What Mitchell did not note is that the administration's characterization of the program understates its scope. Moreover, recent polling shows that support for the program is at best split.

During the January 25 edition of NBC's Nightly News, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell claimed that recent polls on President Bush's authorization of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency (NSA) showed "little public outcry over the program, especially when [the administration] tell[s] people it is limited only to those who talk to Al Qaeda." What Mitchell did not note is that the administration's characterization of the program as limited to Al Qaeda communications significantly understates its reported scope. Moreover, recent polling shows that support for the program is at best split, even when respondents are asked whether they approve or disapprove of the program based on the administration's limited and disputed characterization. The most recent polls -- released before Mitchell's statement -- show that 51 percent of Americans do not approve of the program. In addition, a January 23 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate the wiretapping authorization, while 39 percent disagree.

Reporting on the Bush administration's effort, over the past week, to defend the NSA program, Mitchell said: "Democrats think their best argument is that the program is a power grab by the president and will ultimately prove to be unpopular. Despite the political furor, the White House is encouraged by recent polls, showing little public outcry over the program, especially when they tell people it is limited only to those who talk to Al Qaeda."

However, according to The New York Times' initial report and its subsequent reporting on the surveillance program, government sources tell quite a different story from the one suggested by the administration and advanced by Mitchell, namely that the program involves only the surveillance of "those who talk to Al Qaeda" and that only international calls are monitored.

Contrary to the administration's characterization of the program as monitoring only international calls, a December 21 Times article reported that the NSA program captured "purely domestic" calls. Further, a January 17 Times report quoted FBI officials saying that the NSA program produced a high volume of leads but the vast majority led to individuals within the United States who had no connection to terrorism.

Moreover, surveillance is reportedly far from limited to "those who talk to Al Qaeda." Far from the certainty implied by Mitchell's statement that only those who are actually "talk[ing] to Al Qaeda" are surveillance targets, President Bush and White House spokesman Scott McClellan have acknowledged that all the NSA requires is that it "reasonably suspect" someone of links to Al Qaeda to have that person's communications intercepted.

While no national polls have yet presented a description of the program broad enough to encompass what has been reported to be its scope -- none have asked respondents whether they support the surveillance of persons without proven links to Al Qaeda within the United States without first obtaining a warrant required by law -- public opinion has been split and is turning increasingly negative. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll presented the administration's limited characterization of the program as monitoring strictly international calls that involved individuals suspected of terrorism. Nevertheless, the poll found that 51 percent of respondents said that the Bush administration was wrong to "wiretap[ ] 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." The poll also found that 58 percent support appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. Because Mitchell's comments were made before the releases of the January 27 New York Times/CBS News and Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg polls, we have not cited them in the analysis of her comments, but they are consistent with our conclusions that polling shows Americans to be split on the question, with changes in approval percentages very much a function of the wording of questions.

From the January 25 edition of NBC's Nightly News, which featured Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press:

MITCHELL: Democrats think their best argument is that the program is a power grab by the president and will ultimately prove to be unpopular. Despite the political furor, the White House is encouraged by recent polls, showing little public outcry over the program, especially when they tell people it is limited only to those who talk to Al Qaeda.

KOHUT [clip]: The public is concerned about civil liberties but what they tell us in the polls is they're more concerned about whether the government is doing enough to -- to protect it from another terrorist attack.

MITCHELL: And tonight the president pledged to reauthorize the eavesdropping for as long as terrorists remain a threat. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

From the December 21 New York Times article:

A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say.

The officials say the National Security Agency's interception of a small number of communications between people within the United States was apparently accidental, and was caused by technical glitches at the National Security Agency in determining whether a communication was in fact ''international.''

From the January 17 New York Times article:

More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret eavesdropping program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive.

"We'd chase a number, find it's a school teacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former FBI official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying, National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Andrea Mitchell
Show/Publication
NBC Nightly News
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