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Polling the Torture Debate

The American public is quite divided on the rightness of harsh interrogation practices at places like the Guantanamo Bay prison. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

New poll data out of CNN suggests that most Americans believe the harsh interrogation techniques used by CIA interrogators was torture but are far more divided about whether or not they approve or disapprove of those techniques.

Six in ten Americans said that the use of "harsh interrogation procedures" including waterboarding is torture -- with the numbers, not surprisingly, highest among self identifying Democrats (75 percent) and lowest among Republicans (44 percent). Fifty-eight percent of independents believe the interrogation practices amounted to torture.

But, when asked whether they approve or disapprove of the use of these techniques, the American public is FAR more divided with 50 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving. Again, the numbers are split down ideological lines with nearly eight in ten Republicans approving and just more than one in four Democrats feeling the same way. Independents break slightly in favor of the use of these methods with 53 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving.

These numbers, which are consistent with data in the Washington Post/ABC News poll released late last month, point to one simple conclusion: Americans believe that what we did to suspected terrorists was torture but also -- narrowly -- believe that it was the right thing to do.

Those twin observations go a long way to explaining why President Barack Obama and his Administration have expressed very little interest in prosecuting those involved with the interrogations despite urgings from the liberal wing of the party to do just that. (The CNN poll shows that 57 percent of people oppose the prosecution of Bush Administration officials for their roles in the interrogations and an even higher number -- 65 percent -- believe that no prosecutions of military and intelligence officials should take place.)

From a purely political perspective -- and we know many people don't approach this from a political perspective -- the prosecutions are a straight loser, forcing a divided country to re-engage with a period of time they would much rather just forget.

In other words, don't expect to hear much on the idea of prosecutions or any sort of congressional truth commission out of the White House. They recognize the perils inherent in any such investigation and have little interest in re-opening a debate that it's not clear how any side could win.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 6, 2009; 4:06 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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You are correct, the politics of this problem are extremely divisive. We need a Torture Reconciliation Act.
Let’s examine the facts:
Some agents of the American people committed acts, during and in preparation for interrogations, which are prohibited by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and by American law. These acts included waterboarding, sensory deprivation, isolation, and various forms of physical abuse. The manner in which some of these activities were executed is generally recognized as constituting torture.
Senior officials of the US Government authorized and directed these acts. These officials were acting in what they believed to be the best interests of America .

The President would prefer to look forward and not focus on the acts of the past. The various court cases and other investigations threaten that forward focus.
We need to draw a line under the past on this issue and move forward. To accomplish that, we need a Grand Bargain.
This is the Grand Bargain: The Right needs to acknowledge that these acts were illegal, the Left needs to agree that no individual will be punished for committing, authorizing, or directing these acts.
This Grand Bargain can be implemented by a Congressional Resolution, including a recommendation to the President (and his acceptance of that recommendation) for a general pardon.
Thus eliminating the threat of prosecution should also open up the possibility of creating a record that truthfully records exactly what happened in these cases.

This resolution will need to carefully define the acts covered. This is not a general amnesty for war crimes. It should be limited to interrogations, and explicitly not cover any acts not involving interrogation.
This Grand Bargain would be binding on all elements of the US Government, including the courts (because of the presidential pardon). But it will not be binding on foreign courts, such as the recent action by a Spanish court to charge high level former US Government officials. The US Government will have to deal with such cases diplomatically.

Posted by: rmb99 | May 7, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

haysdobnick, I'm trying to understand. A group of people have long been attacking Americans abroad and inflicting untold damage to embassies,airplanes and ships. They have perpetrated the unthinkable torture of death and beheading since the Middle Ages right up until now. Their idea of torture is TORTURE just to think about. So I agree war is not nice and I don't want any. However these miscreants, emboldened by previous presidential unspeakably tortuous weakness, came to the heart of our country and unleashed the most harmful, shameful attack of which I have ever heard. Forget the "Maine". We are simply not worth our skin if we don't call this a war. Bush and Cheney had the incredible bravery to call it such and those who don't deem it war would strive to enable those who want to destroy us. Better think twice about where your loyalties are. We are strong and good and even stronger, we are right and proud to be so. What we do to defend ourselves is right and agonizingly thought out. We don't want to torture and are incensed to be put in that position. Our morals when all the agonizing has been done are unquestionable because we are us. WE are Americans defending ourselves, period.

Posted by: dagherone | May 7, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

If waterboarding a captured terrorist prevents thousands of American deaths then go for it. Waterboard the guy a thousand times if that's what it takes. I wonder if the cry babies out there who whine about the poor terrorist getting waterboarded,poor poor baby, would feel so sorry for him if they knew that we got intelligence because of this "torture" that prevented their families from being blown up in a terrorist attack?

Posted by: RobT1 | May 7, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Torture is never OK. It has been proven time and again not to work. When a people are strong and good there is no need for torture or war. Unfortunately when certain elements get into power morals seem to suffer. What ever happened to the morals of this country? Oh that's right Bush & Chenney were here for eight long years ...

Posted by: haysdobnick | May 7, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I don't believe that fundamental factual or moral questions can be properly resolved by counting noses... no matter how many "votes" may be obtained from frightened, ignorant or partisan people, torture is illegal. Its illegal under the express terms of international conventions to which we are signatory, and under our own most basic law: the Constitution.

Unverifiable, self-serving and otherwise suspect assertions about the utility of torture...from those who counseled or conducted it, no less...are not even relevant. Rule of law requires the supremacy of law over expedience, and over the power of every official who accepts office (especially those who serve pursuant to their promise to protect and defend that law).

Prosecute. Enforce the law.

Posted by: Observer44 | May 7, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

The Germans did not favor Nurenberg either. Democracies have to stick together. Torture is freedom.

As long as it is not me or my family, I would rather see 1000 innocent people tortured and held indefinitely without Habeas Corpus rights or a Trial than let 1 guilty person slip through.

Those who will not compromise their values for short term expediency do not have values. Cheney would do anything to protect freedom, including torture and hold people without charges. With Original Sin, the people who are tortured did something.

I am hoping the next Republican President pardons all World War Two "War Criminals". And anyone found guilty in The Hague.

Extremism in defense of patriotism is no vice. But, please, free Scooter Libby and don't torture me.

I suppose it is too late to get an apology from the USA for the USA's shameful critique of the Chinese at Tiananmen Square.......

Posted by: wapoisrightwingrag | May 7, 2009 5:16 AM | Report abuse

The support for harsh interrogation would be far higher if the average respondent knew much about what actually happened. A split decision was made possible only be years of fire and brimstone damnation of "torture" by the WaPo among many others.

Go ahead, Chris, tell me that you wouldn't want someone to slap KSM around if it was the only apparent way to get information that would keep you and your family from being murdered by terrorists.

Posted by: jeburke242 | May 6, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

All this stuff is extremely disingenuous. Do we know how the questions were phrased? You, as an insider, should know (and probably do) that in polls it's possible to get someone to say that something which is objectively black is, if not snow white, at least pale mauve!

But the reality, as laid out in most of the previous comments, is that:

1. Waterboarding and other types of coercive techniques ARE torture

2. These techniques are AGAINST INTERNATIONAL LAWS (and the US is a signatory to treaties acknowledging that fact--which means that the degree of hypocrisy that would allow the US to rationalise such acts would put it clearly into the 'rogue nation' status--a category it has so sententiously assigned other nations to).

3. Everyone who really knows about this says again and again that TORTURE DOESN'T YIELD ACTIONABLE INFORMATION.

Posted by: sverigegrabb | May 6, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the press doesn't need to go so far as sweetlucy suggests, but the sanitizing of the issue is a little too much. Even the CNN article has the word "torture" in quotation marks as if the word was a factitious term. To this day, there isn't even a shred of evidence that torture has worked, but you'll be hard pressed to find any media account that states this. I understand the establishment is vested in protecting the Bush administration for some reason (think of how many Bush cronies are popping up on TV for analysis), but this needs to stop.

Maybe I shouldn't be posting this soapbox material on a WaPo blog.

Posted by: DDAWD | May 6, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

For me the only issue is whether those who see torture as a necessary evil would be happy for other nations to use torture on US troops to obtain information that those nations felt was needed.

If we are appalled by the notion of US troops/ citizens being tortured, then we can have no moral, legal, ethical or political basis for supporting the use of torture by the US.

Posted by: anthonyrimell | May 6, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

This isn't a political issue. This is a legal/moral issue. We don't torture, period, end of story.

If the Repugs want to defend torture, then by all means, they can have at it.

I can't think of anything that could be more repulsive to a majority of voters than a party (Republican) that defends the use of torture.

Posted by: DrainYou | May 6, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

When the media can't even call it torture most of the time, or refers to it as in one article I read as, "what Obama calls torture", and it is always called "enhanced interrogation" what do you expect?

No wonder people are confused. Not to mention we still don't know the entire story. If the media, including you Chris would tell us the truth, about everything, all the bloody gory details, including the number of people who are dead, the children who were tortured, the real things that happened, instead of the bits and pieces of what people get. No one reads those memos..they don't go to the links and read them.. they barely read the news papers, that's why they are going out of business, put these details on the front page every day, let them see what happened. Print those pictures again of Abu Ghraib. Tell them about it over and over, like you do about Michelle putting her arm around the Queen. Then ask what you think about Torture, with a capital T, instead of enhanced interrogation.. see what happens then. You might get a different answer to your poll.

Posted by: sweetlucy47 | May 6, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

I wish I could see the questions. The CNN report doesn't provide them

Posted by: DDAWD | May 6, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

First of all, I don't care what American poll respondents believe regarding these practices. They don't vote on international law.

What is troubling, though, is that there are some who responded to this survey who believed that the practice was torture, yet agree with its use by the United States.

I would be amazed that one could find a person who would agree to the use of torture had I not just read a recent article by Charles Krauthammer advocating for the "impermissible evil" of torture.

I'm still a little startled by these results, though.

Posted by: JohninMpls | May 6, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

The confusion of the American public is understandable, given the moral confusion of its leaders the last ten years.

When the leadership spends years telling you you're about to get blown up any minute, that the U.S. doesn't torture, that torture's bad, that Saddam is evil because he tortures, that we're superior because we don't torture, that wait the U.S. actually does torture, that torturing terrorists is good, but that we don't torture anymore, that we will punish individual soldiers that torture, that we shouldn't punish the people who directed them to torture . . .

Well, it's no reason people are confused and conflicted.

It's about time for our leadership to exhibit some true moral authority and reiterate what we have believed since this country was founded:

1) Torture is evil and beneath us.
2) We will not torture.

Posted by: nodebris | May 6, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, Americans has proven to the world that they are hypocrites. "Do as I say, not as I do." should now be added as an Constitutional Amendment.

Posted by: alysheba_3 | May 6, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

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