As the battle between the White House and a leading Republican senator over U.S. policies on treating terrorist suspects appears headed toward a final showdown, polls suggest that the U.S. public is ambivalent on the issue of torture.
Results of several recent surveys of adults nationwide show that a sizable majority thinks torture of alleged terrorist prisoners is often or sometimes justified, while other polls find that people think the practice is rarely or never justified.
In one poll, however, respondents added a caveat to their vote 58 percent would be willing to permit torture if it yielded information that thwarted a major terrorist attack on the U.S.
The issue of prisoner treatment hit front pages worldwide with the release of photographs of U.S. military personnel mistreating detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Since then, there have been numerous allegations of similar or worse prisoner treatment in other U.S.-run prisons, including the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
As a result, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Vietnam-era prisoner of war, has introduced legislation that would ban cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners by the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and private contractors.
McCain has been locked in a struggle over the measure with the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who has demanded an exemption for the CIA.
The Senate vote approving the measure was passed 90-9 on a bipartisan basis, despite the administration’s threat to veto it. However, a veto would be difficult for the president, since the McCain measure is attached to a "must-pass" Defense Department spending bill that provides funding for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill is likely to come to a Senate vote before legislators depart for their Christmas break.
One of the polls, conducted by the Pew Research Center in September and October, found that in a survey of 2,006 people, 46 percent believe that torturing terror suspects to gain important information is sometimes (31 percent) or often (15 percent) justified, while 17 percent thought it is rarely justified, and 32 percent were opposed.
But two others produced different results. A CNN/USA Today poll in mid-November reported that 56 percent of respondents would be unwilling to permit torture of prisoners, with 38 percent willing. And Newsweek magazine’s poll during the same period found that 66 percent of respondents said torture should be used never (33 percent) or rarely (33 percent).
The Pew survey also found a pronounced divide between attitudes of the general public and those of more influential citizens. Of the 520 opinion leaders academics, news media leaders, military and foreign-affairs experts, religious leaders, and scientists polled on the same issue, no more than one in four believes that torturing terrorist suspects can be sometimes or often justified.
Pew reported that strong opposition to torture is particularly pronounced among security experts, religious leaders, and academics, majorities of whom say the use of torture to gain important information is never justified. Nearly half (48 percent) of scientists and engineers also take this position, as do military leaders (49 percent), the Pew survey found.
But while opinion leaders largely agree in opposing the use of torture, their views widely differ as to whom should be held responsible for prisoner abuse in Iraq and alleged prisoner abuse in the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
By a margin of more than three-to-one (75 percent-21 percent), scientists and engineers say that these abuses were mostly the result of official policies. A majority of security (57 percent) and foreign affairs experts (58 percent) agree, along with about half of academics (53 percent) and news media leaders (53 percent).
But most military (60 percent) and religious (67 percent) leaders believe cases of prisoner mistreatment were mostly the result of misconduct on the part of soldiers and contractors.
Pew added, "The American public is far more open than opinion leaders to the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information. Nearly half of the public (46 percent) says this can be ‘often’ (15 percent) or ‘sometimes’ (31 percent) be justified. This is consistent with results of Pew surveys since July 2004."
The Pew poll found that, "The general public is divided over this question 48 percent believe soldiers and contractors are to blame, while 36 percent blame official policies," the report said.
But another poll, conducted by Harris Interactive among U.S. adults nationwide in April, found that among the 66 percent of adults who believe that prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured, a 41 percent plurality feels that those in command are most responsible followed by the soldiers (30 percent), the administration (13 percent) and the Pentagon (10 percent).
In the Newsweek poll, while a majority of respondents (66 percent) rejected torture, 58 percent said they would change their vote if torture could prevent a major terrorist attack on the U.S.
In the same poll, 73 percent of respondents said the torture issue had damaged Washington’s image abroad "a lot" (39 percent) or "somewhat" (34 percent).
Some of the polling was done contemporaneously with disclosure by the Washington Post newspaper that the U.S. had kidnapped prisoners and taken them to secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere operated by the CIA.
On her recent visit to Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such prisons, but insisted that torture was against both U.S. law and policy.
The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 55 percent of respondents felt the U.S. had "taken the right course" in holding detainees in such prisons, as opposed to 30 percent, who felt the government had "gone too far."
Adding fuel to the prisoner treatment issue are allegations that torture and inhuman treatment persist. Most recently, five members of an elite U.S. Army Ranger unit in Iraq were charged with kicking and punching detainees while awaiting their transportation to a detention facility.
At least 108 people have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently, according to government data provided to the Associated Press. Roughly a quarter of those deaths have been investigated as possible abuse by U.S. personnel. There have been 21 homicides.
The torture issue has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups.
"The Bush administration continues to believe that by invoking the word ‘terror’ it can detain anyone in any corner of the world without any oversight," John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told IPS. "Yet all these cases do is suggest that the United States has no commitment to legal principles. Turning your back on the law is not the way to stop terrorism."