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Bob Franken: Leaks ... and lies

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Polls are useful, no doubt about it. They also can be misleading.

They utilize statistics to take an opinion snapshot. But snapshots can confuse because they only capture an instant, instead of the context of the moment. Besides, as Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli are all too often quoted, there are “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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In polling, so much depends on the precise wording used in the questions. So it is that our various surveys seem to indicate that when asked about the mass data scoops by the National Security Agency, the composite view is Americans don’t know what to think. I base that on several tallies that suggest people are all over the map. Washington Post-Pew Research Center sampling projects 56 percent who find them “acceptable.” CBS counts 58 percent who disapprove of collecting information about ordinary Americans. I first thought the issue would have staying power and said so just one column ago. One of the cool parts of this job is that you can change your mind.

So now I believe that soon, those of us in and around political showbiz (“Hooray for Washington!”) will have to move on to something else we can sensationalize. It’s a shame, really, because this topic is one that definitely deserves more attention. It’s not even a question of how our private lives are such an open book. Surely, we’ve figured that out with all the surveillance cameras and GPS devices monitoring our every move. We’ve also come to accept that corporations closely analyze the intimate data that are revealed by whatever we do with our electronic devices.

In fact, maybe we can take a big chunk out of the deficit by simply subcontracting the snooping to Google or Facebook or Amazon or one of those other companies that already are doing the same thing.

At the very least, the U.S. government could merge its program with the Chinese, who also are cyberspying on Americans. Think of the economy-of-scale savings.

Of course, if we are to believe our public officials, they actually are not intruding on our privacy all that much. If we can’t trust the NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, when he says his people “take great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy,” then who can we trust?

For too many, the answer is nobody. The credibility of our system is shot. We have been worn down by the daily water torture of corruption and deceit that stains both the public and private sectors. Even when there is reform, it is quickly thwarted by armies of nihilistic lawyers, accountants and lobbyists. At the same time, politicians continuously make bold promises that are routinely unkept. Playing by the rules seems to be for suckers.

Even the calls by those in power for an open debate are disingenuous. They can evade any question by simply claiming the answer is classified. When they contend that the leaks by the Edward Snowdens and Bradley Mannings of this world do great harm, we also are told we must accept that on faith.

That becomes even more difficult when we absorb the information that does see the light of day and discover that these same officials haven’t been straight with us. National intelligence chief James Clapper is directly asked at an open Senate hearing in March “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” and directly answers “No sir.” He excuses his response as “the least untruthful” one he could give. The reality was hidden behind the national-security fabric, so his fabrication was justified. That’s how he sees it.

Overall, skepticism is spreading. When we do the poll dance, we consistently find a majority has decided the country is headed in the wrong direction. That would certainly include the movement away from openness.

— Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at bob@bobfranken.tv.

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