The Corner

Polling Patriot

I’m always suspicious of polls that claim that people’s views on a particular policy become more positive or negative the better informed they are. Very often, the poll isn’t “informing” respondents so much as spinning them–and sometimes misinforming them. (Widely reported claims about how people are more supportive of funding for embryo-destructive research the more informed they are were based on such polls.)

So I was suspicious when I read Will Lester’s AP write-up of a poll claiming that people grow less supportive of the Patriot Act the more they know about it.

The poll also claims that most (57 percent of) people want Patriot modified rather than allowed to expire or renewed in its current form. That may be so, but I’m not reassured of its truth by the question’s wording, which presents modification as the moderate alternative. If “strengthening Patriot”–let alone “strengthening Patriot’s anti-terrorist provisions”–were presented as an alternative, presumably renewal would look more moderate and attract more support. (For that matter, do all the people who want Patriot “modified” want it weakened?)

The poll finds 43 percent support for a Patriot provision that “enables federal law enforcement agents in terrorism investigations to require banks to turn over records to the government without a judge’s prior approval.” If people knew that the basic authority is longstanding (predating Patriot), it would probably increase that approval level.

The poll finds that only 23 percent of the public supports “sneak-and-peek” searches. But its question wording stacks the deck. The question reads: “A proposal being debated would enable courts to authorize federal law enforcement agents to conduct secret searches of Americans’ homes without informing the occupants for an unspecified period of time, if they argue that immediate notification might have adverse results on the criminal investigation. Do you support or oppose this proposal?”

First of all, the question shouldn’t include the word “secret”–the more precise “without informing the occupants for [a] period of time” is already in there. Second, the court generally would specify the period of time (although it could extend it). Third, law enforcement agents have to do more than merely “argue” against immediate notification; they have to persuade the court. Something like “demonstrate” would be better. Fourth, they have to demonstrate more than “adverse results.” What’s being debated in Congress is whether it should be possible for agents to get a delayed-notification search warrant when they have reason to believe that immediate notification would result in the intimidation of witnesses or “seriously jeopardize” the investigation.

I imagine that an appropriately reworded question would generate substantially higher support.

This isn’t the worst poll I’ve seen, but it’s not great.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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