Secure America Now (SAN) is a hawkish advocacy group founded in 2011 by pollsters John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell. The group produces political ads and policy analyses in an effort to "inject national security issues into the public dialogue." A high-profile "member" of the group is Devon Cross, a longstanding neoconservative activist who has supported a number of militarist advocacy initiatives, including the Project for the New American Century.
Describing its origins, Secure America Now's website states, "Since the attacks on 9-11, Americans have frequently questioned their government's response to domestic and international challenges to our security. We are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, conservatives and liberals who share a common concern about our security and liberty. Our concerns have led us to create an organization that allows the American people to influence American security and foreign policy."
SAN functions as a 501(c)4 organization, which is a special tax-exempt status for "social welfare" groups that allows an organization's donors to remain anonymous—thereby "leaving voters unable to evaluate which interests might be funding ads or what their motives are," as one observer noted. Because of the growing role played by 501(c)4s like Secure America Now in the 2012 election, these groups were at the center of a debate between Republican and Democratic leaders. Democrats, who viewed 501(c)4s as disproportionately benefiting the Romney/Ryan campaign, claimed that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) should apply a "bright-line" assessment of these groups that imposes "a strict, percentage-based cap on the amount of a nonprofit group's spending that can go towards political activities." Republicans responded that such an assessment would be lead to the subversion of the IRS for "partisan political gains."
Secure America Now also claims to operate a 501(c)3 foundation that conducts "research into security issues that the media is not covering." As of mid-2012, there was very little available information about this foundation. Various sources at the time, however, indicated that an organization called the "Secure American Now Foundation" was based at the Washington law firm of Whiteford, Taylor, and Preston under the leadership of firm partner Jeffrey P. Altman.
SAN's claims to bipartisanship are belied by its advocacy efforts, which during the 2012 presidential campaign included producing numerous misleading ads targeting the Obama administration's foreign policy. A key focus of these ads was Iran, with several ads making the unproven claim that the country is developing nuclear weapons. (The U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly argued that there is little evidence showing that an Iranian nuclear bomb program exists.)
In one such ad, a suburban mother complains that President Obama has made the United States less secure because of a litany of purportedly irresponsible actions, including shutting down the "black sites"—the secret foreign detention facilities that were used by the CIA to interrogate terror suspects—ceasing the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, "all but abandoning Israel," "apologizing for America," failing to stop Iran from allegedly trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and "making clear the era of American exceptionalism is over." Commented one writer for the Huffington Post: The ad complains "that the Obama administration hasn't been Dick Cheney enough in their pursuit of terrorists. This comes despite the fact that by many accounts, the Obama administration has exceeded Cheneyism in ways that even trouble writers at the National Review."
Another Secure American Now ad from 2012 claimed that in his first interview as president, "Obama chose Arab TV for an apology," referring to the president's first interview in the White House, during which he said to a reporter from the Dubai-based Al Arabiya that "all too often the United States starts by dictating." The ad also shows Obama saying that it is "important for us to be willing to talk to Iran," with a voiceover in the ad then claiming that "Iran answered with terror, attacks on our troops and nuclear weapons development. … Tell President Obama: no apologies, no weakness. It's time to stop Iran."
In its assessment of this ad, Politifact.com concluded: "Obama's first television interview after taking office was with the Al Arabiya network at the White House. But the ad gets nothing right beyond that. By saying 'all too often the United States starts by dictating,' Obama was not apologizing but being diplomatic about past strategies that failed to yield results. What's more, the ad criticizes Obama's approach to Iran, but his quote actually referred to the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Secure America Now has been criticized for attempting to mask a right-wing, "pro-Israel" agenda with misleading claims about bipartisanship. For instance, in a report about a poll it released in July 2011 that purported to demonstrate that Jewish Americans were abandoning the Democratic Party, the Washington Post's Plum Line reported, "Republicans are touting yet another poll that purports to predict the end of the Jewish allegiance to the Democratic Party. Citing a new poll by Republican John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell, the GOP's favorite 'Democrat,' they have convinced themselves that this time, Obama really is in trouble among Jewish voters."
The heavily criticized poll claimed to show that large numbers of Jewish Americans were disillusioned with President Barack Obama over his handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship. But according to the Post, the poll was "laughably bogus" because of its flawed sampling techniques and misleading questions. According to Think Progress, "the Post's polling manager slammed McLaughlin and Caddell's poll—an uncommon move for a major news organization's pollster—as 'a clear example of advocacy polling.'"
In a report about the poll, Think Progress's Eli Clifton wrote that although it was officially released by McLaughlin and Caddell, it had been commissioned by Secure America Now, with whom the two pollsters appeared to hide their connections.
Reported Clifton: "Think Progress asked John McLaughlin about Secure America Now and he told us: 'Pat [Caddell] and I worked with [Secure America Now] to do the survey. [...] They paid for it.' When asked yesterday if he could provide a contact name for the organization, he responded that he would have to get back to us since 'I don't want to give you the wrong information.' A little research revealed an article on the conservative Big Peace website from February, discussing how Secure America Now was founded by John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell to 'inject national security issues into the public dialogue.' McLaughlin acknowledged his leadership role at Secure America Now in a phone conversation today, and explaining to Think Progress why he didn't provide a contact name yesterday because: 'We don't have any staff yet so that's what I was looking for. You know, we're just putting [Secure America Now] together.' The poll makes no mention of the fact that an organization Caddell described as 'a grassroots place where people can join up and begin to do things to force [national security and foreign policy] issues into the debate,' commissioned its own founders to conduct the poll.'"
The pollster John Zogby commented: "Frankly, I don't understand why two names like John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell can't just say 'Hey, we did a poll.' So it's the old watergate question, who actually paid for it? [...] It is odd. These are two experienced, credible pollsters. Let's lay that out and that's accepted. This is clumsy. They should know better than to do something this way."
In September 2011, Secure America Now released another controversial poll, this one claiming to show that Americans view Iran as the top U.S. security threat. In a press release about the poll, Devon Cross stated: "Though both the Bush and Obama administrations have been reticent to consider military options to address the threat posed by Iranian nukes, the American people are prepared to support such action should sanctions fail. Americans across the political spectrum are focused on security, even though these issues get far less attention from politicians than these polling numbers indicate they should."
Discussing the poll, Ben Smith of Politico wrote: "The group has been accused in the past of running leading questions, and elsewhere in the poll there do seem to be some of those. For instance: 'Do you think that if the Palestinians are given their own state in the West Bank and Gaza they would live peacefully with Israel or continue their campaign of terror to destroy Israel?'"
In its review of the poll, Salon.com pointed out that it was based on a highly skewed sample of respondents, 52 percent of whom claimed to be evangelical or born-again Christians. "So 52% of the respondents are self-identified evangelicals. If that strikes you as high, that's because it probably is. Authoritative polls on Americans' religious identification diverge significantly from the Secure America Now poll on this point. An ABC/BeliefNet poll in 2001, for example, found that just 31% of Americans (or 37% of Christians) identified as evangelical or born-again. On the higher end, Gallup found that in 2005 that same number was 43%. And in a massive survey in 2009, Pew found that just 26% of Americans belong to evangelical Protestant churches. So it looks like the Secure America Now poll over-sampled evangelicals, who naturally are more likely to be hawkish on the questions of Israel and Iran that the poll focuses on."