Poll: 68% of Americans say torturing terrorists is justified in some circumstances

Useful context from HuffPo and YouGov as the Senate agonizes over whether to release that Democratic Intel Committee report on CIA enhanced interrogation. Polls on this subject are always fascinating as a reality check on critics who accuse the CIA of having betrayed “American values.” Have they? Let’s ask some Americans:


That’s despite the fact that barely more than a third think info obtained from torture is reliable and a large plurality think it’s possible to fight terrorism without it. Even among Democrats, notes HuffPo, just 34 percent say torture is never justified under any circumstances. Virtually no one, including Bill Clinton by his own admission, is going to sit by and risk having a bomb go off if there’s someone in custody who might know how to stop it. Not even Obama, although I’m sure he’d elegantly sidestep that question if it were put to him starkly with rhetoric about “staying true to who we are” or whatever. The parade of potential horribles post-9/11 is simply too terrifying — smuggled nukes, freelance bioweapons — for most people to take coercion off the table. In fact, I wonder sometimes what the reaction would be if news broke that O had, in fact, authorized some form of EIT and had gotten useful intel from it that saved lives. Public reaction would break down along the same lines, I assume, as it does in the drone debate, with lefty ideologues chagrined and virtually everyone else — most Democrats included — grateful. I have no doubt that his job approval numbers would go up, not down.

What’s even more interesting than the HuffPo numbers, though, is the historical trend. Here’s what Pew found when they polled this issue sporadically from 2004 through 2009:


If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have guessed that support for EIT would slowly but consistently decline over time as 9/11 receded, unless/until there’s another major attack on U.S. soil. That’s not what we see in the Pew data. Support bounces around, from majority opposition in 2004 (not long after Abu Ghraib) to an even split a few years later to majority support in November 2009, during O’s first year in office. It wasn’t just Republicans driving it either: Check the second table here and you’ll see that, even during the Bush years, roughly 35 percent of Democrats said torture was often or sometimes justified against terrorists. As of November 2009, the number was 47 percent. The significance of HuffPo’s numbers today is that it suggests the spike in support in late 2009 wasn’t a statistical outlier. The new numbers are almost identical to the old numbers (in fact, the number who say torture is never justified is actually down a few points since November 2009), suggesting a more durable consensus on this issue. I never would have predicted it.

Now I’m curious to know what the next GOP presidential field will say about it. Will anyone endorse reinstating EIT, or some modified version of it (say, with the ban on waterboarding still intact)? As usual, Rand Paul’s the least predictable and therefore most interesting character in the bunch. If he opens the door to some version of EIT, libertarians will destroy him over it. If he takes the never-ever approach, hawks will destroy him for not being willing to do everything he can to protect America. Stay tuned.