Parsing the American Appetite for Torture

"Pelosi Knocked Off Her Game" was the headline this week in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. The speaker, a vociferous critic of the Bush administration's terrorism policy, found herself under intense scrutiny after a declassified CIA report stated that she had been briefed on enhanced interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, in 2002. Later in the week, the controversy escalated when she claimed the CIA had deceived her and Congress. In light of recent events, how do Americans view the use of torture and Congress' response to it?

On nine occasions since July 2004, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans about the "use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information." The results have been remarkably stable. In April, 49% of respondents said it was "often" or "sometimes" justified, and 47% said "rarely" or "never." Sixty-four percent of Republicans, 54% of independents and 36% of Democrats felt torture could be justified often or sometimes.

Other survey organizations also report an evenly divided public. In answer to an April ABC News/Washington Post question, 49% of those polled said they supported Barack Obama's decision that his administration would not use torture, but 48% said there were cases in which the U.S. should consider using it against terrorism suspects.

In an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 50% of respondents said they approved of the Bush administration's decision to use "harsh interrogation procedures, including the procedures known as waterboarding," but almost as many, 46%, were opposed.

Americans appear to be more willing to condone assassination than torture.

One more example: a January Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey showed that 43% of respondents favored allowing the CIA, "in extreme circumstances, to use enhanced interrogation techniques, even torture, to obtain information form prisoners that might protect the United States from terrorist attacks." Forty-eight percent were opposed.

The public is split, too, about whether harsh interrogation techniques have worked. In response to a Fox News question from January, 45% of those polled said these measures had saved lives since Sept. 11, 2001, while 41% said that was unlikely.

Americans appear to be more willing to condone assassination than torture. In a 2001 Gallup poll taken after Sept. 11, 77% of respondents said the government should assassinate known terrorists to combat terrorism. A still-strong figure, 65%, gave that response in 2005. As for "tortur[ing] known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S.," in 2001, 45% were willing to use torture and 53% were not; in 2005, those responses were 39% and 59%, respectively.

There appears to be a limited appetite for investigations into the use of the techniques and even less support for criminal probes. In a Gallup poll taken in late April of this year, 51% of those surveyed favored a "government investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques," and 42% opposed one.

But there's one exception. When questions mention "the Bush administration," there is usually majority opposition to congressional investigations. People may see them as inappropriately political, or they may just want to close the books on the Bush chapter of American history.

For example, 42% of respondents to the April CNN/ORC poll said Congress should investigate Bush administration officials who authorized the use of the procedures, but 57% were opposed. A broader CBS News question from April found that 34% of those surveyed wanted Congress to investigate whether the Bush administration's treatment of detainees, the use of wiretaps and other Justice Department practices broke the law, but 62% said the investigations were "not necessary."

And in late January and early February, Gallup found that only 38% of poll respondents supported a criminal probe of Bush administration policies into the possible use of torture in terror investigations.

A month before Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, 10% of those surveyed told CBS News/New York Times interviewers they had a favorable opinion of her, and 17% said they had an unfavorable one. Seven in 10 were undecided or hadn't heard enough to venture an opinion. In February this year, 10% still had a favorable opinion--but her doubters had almost doubled to 30%. Unfavorable opinions about her have risen--based on other polls too--and that's something that may persist if this controversy continues to escalate and the public becomes more deeply engaged on the issue of torture.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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