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Steps must be taken to fix the NSA's image problem

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By Amy Zegart & Marshall Erwin
Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In the wake of Edward Snowden's ongoing revelations about U.S. surveillance programs, the National Security Agency is facing the worst crisis in its 60-year history. Today, too many Americans mistakenly believe the NSA is listening to their phone calls and reading their emails. But misperception is only part of the agency's problem.

In an Oct. 5-7 YouGov national poll we commissioned, we also found the more that Americans understand the NSA's activities, the less they support the agency.

Our initial hunch was that Americans knew little about the intelligence agencies that have kept us safe since 9/11 and that public ignorance was compounding the NSA's trust problems. Without a baseline understanding of what the NSA does and how it works, Americans would be more likely to believe the worst about America's premier code-breaking and signals intelligence agency. Or so we thought.

Our poll results found the part about the public's ignorance was true. But we did not find that ignorance bred greater distrust of the agency.

Nearly half of respondents had no idea that the NSA breaks foreign codes, even though that's been one of the agency's core missions since its creation and one of the reasons why the NSA employs more mathematicians than any other organization in the United States.

Of respondents, 39 percent believe that metadata — the information the NSA collects as part of its bulk phone records program — includes the content of phone calls. It doesn't. And 35 percent mistakenly think the NSA interrogates terrorist detainees. Nearly as many (32 percent) wrongly think the agency conducts operations to capture or kill terrorists.

And though 43 percent of Americans could correctly pick out James Clapper as the director of national intelligence, 74 percent could correctly identify Miley Cyrus as the person who twerked at the MTV Video Music Awards. When a celebrity's bottom has better name recognition than the intelligence community's head, you know spy agencies have some public relations work to do.

But our poll also suggests that knowing more about intelligence agencies does not automatically translate into higher public support. For example, Americans who accurately understood the NSA's telephone metadata program were no more favorable toward the agency than those who mistakenly thought metadata involved snooping on the content of calls.

In many cases, we found that more knowledge corresponded with lower support. Among those who correctly identified Clapper, 53 percent had an unfavorable impression of the NSA, compared with 33 percent for those who could not identify him. Among those who erroneously believed the NSA conducts operations to kill terrorists, 35 percent had an unfavorable view of the agency. Among those who answered this question correctly, 64 percent viewed the NSA unfavorably.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, in a speech in September, argued that surveillance programs have been sensationalized by the media. But what Alexander and other intelligence officials are saying is that their biggest problem is misperception; if only the public knew more, they would approve of what the NSA is doing. This is why the Obama administration's response to the Snowden leaks has focused so much on transparency. Increased transparency, the logic goes, will correct misperceptions and win support.

Our results suggest this approach is misguided. To know the NSA is not to love the NSA.

The NSA needs to win this debate on the merits. What we need to know is whether the agency's telephone and Internet surveillance programs are wise and effective.

For months, we have been obsessing over the legality of the surveillance programs. But recent administration disclosures have provided a remarkable amount of information about the legal rationale and oversight regime governing the programs. Though legal scholars will continue to debate endlessly just what “relevance” or “targeting” means, the message from these disclosures for the rest of us is this: There is no evidence that the NSA is engaged in any illegal domestic snooping operations.

For national security, the more important question now is whether these programs are good counterterrorism policy. We have lost sight of that.

Our poll shows that Americans are willing to give their government significant leeway if they think counterterrorism tools are effective. Support for assassinating known terrorists, for example, has hovered at around 65 percent for years. However, we have yet to hear a compelling case for why the NSA's programs are valuable.

This is how the administration can win an NSA debate — by demonstrating with clear examples that these programs have been critical and by convincing the public that the privacy trade-offs involved are worth it.

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-director of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. Marshall Erwin is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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