It was a crack operation. Very quick. In and out. They got the goods and took to the skies with their prize.
No, these weren't the INS agents who nabbed Elian Gonzalez in their predawn raid. These were the cadres of pollsters deployed afterward with daring and elan, sent to ferret out what the American people thought about the fate of the Cuban refugee boy.
Within hours of the government raid, the Gallup Organization asked some 600 Americans how they felt about it. CNN also conducted a pseudo-poll that recorded callers' reaction to the operation. Other polling firms followed.
Various polls showed that Americans supported the government operation. Gallup found that 57% agreed with the feds' actions. Surveys by CBS and NBC yielded virtually identical results.
More than anything, the numbers provide an object lesson on the limitations of polling to further public debate. They offer further evidence of how polling in fact may undermine public discourse and basic liberties.
First, consider the timing. Even before most people knew the details of the SWAT-style operation, pollsters were deployed to find out what Americans thought about it. What information did people have to assess the way the government handled the case? Like most polls, Gallup's offers us no clue.
Yet those early polls have been flogged by pundits and other White House apologists as incontestable evidence that Americans like the way things were done and wouldn't have it any other way.
Second, consider the way pollsters ask questions. How a question is "framed" can explain almost every outcome.
For many Americans on both the left and the right, "the Picture" of a federal agent pointing a submachinegun at Elian and the fisherman who rescued him shows a government contemptuous of liberty and heavy handed in the execution of law.
That's why the polls are so disturbing: citizens seem to have given the government a pass in a case of arbitrary "justice," even though the courts were operating slowly, but inexorably, toward a lawful — and peaceful — resolution.
Are Americans really indifferent to civil liberties? Do these numbers really show a disconnected populace that backs the government's commando tactics?
Probably not. Though many Americans backed Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to take Elian by force, it's a good idea to think about polls more than just in terms of what is asked. For most people, the issue is about the father getting custody of his son. It helped that the raid did not escalate into a gun battle, or end in a flaming inferno.
Absent also from the public frame of the polls was the issue of life in Cuba. Except for talk radio, the media has danced around the inconvenient fact that Cuba is a totalitarian regime where parents have no rights. And we don't hear much anymore about the initial inability (and unwillingness) of Juan Miguel Gonzalez to join his son in America.
More than one commentator has noted that the poll numbers and the White House spin are nearly identical to the reaction immediately after federal agents burned down the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993. At the time, a majority of Americans backed the government's move.
Americans generally back the government in the early stages of a crisis. Only later, after the images are analyzed and the facts become better known, does public opinion change and solidify.
Unfortunately, instant polls undermine the time for deliberation and discussion. Both sides don't get heard because the media — more anxious to handicap horse races instead of report the news — jump on the results of polls so quickly.
This isn't only evident when pollsters leap into action hours after a news event occurs. Look at the reportage questioning the prospect of congressional hearings. Elected officials expressed anger and disgust at the way Reno handled the situation. Republican leaders in Congress are still mulling an investigation into the Justice Department's tactics.
But Walter Mears of the Associated Press warned that the GOP will suffer if they hold hearings, according to the polls. The first calls to kill a full inquiry of the facts in embryo came a few days before NBC News complained that agents beat one of its cameramen and a sound engineer to the ground and threatened to shoot them if they tried to get up.
If we've learned anything from the Clinton Era, it's that nothing is as it first appears. It doesn't matter whether polls show that a majority of Americans favor the raid or the spin. Reality still exists, even when polls become the weapons to enforce the status quo and squelch debate before it gets started.
America is a nation governed by laws, not ruled by mobs. And until we recognize the limitations of polls and the often embarrassing ignorance of voters, we will suffocate the debate that allows a nation to think, and keeps liberty alive.