Politics

Slim Majority Wants Bush-Era Interrogations Investigated

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Majority says use of harsh techniques on terrorism suspects was justified

PRINCETON, NJ -- A new Gallup Poll finds 51% of Americans in favor and 42% opposed to an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. At the same time, 55% of Americans believe in retrospect that the use of the interrogation techniques was justified, while only 36% say it was not. Notably, a majority of those following the news about this matter "very closely" oppose an investigation and think the methods were justified.

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These results are based on an April 24-25 Gallup Poll. The Obama administration recently released documents that revealed the Bush administration's legal justification for using so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation that many consider to be torture. Congress followed that release by issuing a report saying Bush administration officials in fact authorized the use of such techniques.

The release of the documents was controversial, and now momentum is growing in Congress for an investigation into the Bush policy on interrogating terrorism suspects.

Sixty-one percent of Americans say they are following news about this issue closely, including 26% who are following it very closely. Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to be paying close attention to this matter.

While a slim majority favors an investigation, on a relative basis the percentage is quite low because Americans are generally quite supportive of government probes into potential misconduct by public officials. In recent years, for example, Americans were far more likely to favor investigations into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys (72%), government databases of telephone numbers dialed by Americans (62%), oil company profits (82%), and the government's response to Hurricane Katrina (70%).

Support for an inquiry into the Bush-era interrogation policy may be relatively limited because a majority of Americans believe the use of the techniques for questioning terrorism suspects was justified. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has probably been the most prominent person to argue that the information that may have been obtained from such practices kept Americans safe from further terrorist attacks. Cheney, not surprisingly, opposes an investigation.

To gain a better understanding of how Americans feel about the matter, Gallup combined the results of the questions on whether the techniques were justified and whether the government should investigate. All told, the greatest number of Americans, 30%, seem to agree with Cheney's position that the ends justified the means and that no investigation is necessary. Nearly as many (25%), though, would appear to side with many congressional Democrats who say the techniques should not have been used and an investigation is warranted. Twenty-three percent think the techniques were warranted yet still favor an investigation, while 10% think the methods should not have been used but nevertheless oppose an official inquiry.

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If (as seems likely) the government does undertake an investigation, Gallup asked Americans which institution they would prefer conduct it. Given a choice among Congress, a bipartisan commission, or the Justice Department, 43% say they have no preference. Those who do have a preference are slightly more likely to prefer a bipartisan commission to the Justice Department, while relatively few say Congress.

Those who favor a probe are no different from the broader public in their preferences for who should conduct it.

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Party Differences

Americans' opinions on this matter vary depending on their party affiliation, generally in line with the views of the leaders in each party. Most Democrats favor an investigation, while most Republicans are opposed. Independents are evenly divided.

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Republicans overwhelmingly believe the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects was justified, and a majority of independents agree. Democrats are more likely to say these actions were not justified than to say they were.

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The plurality of each party group has no preference as to who should conduct an investigation, but of those who choose one of the three institutions, Republicans are more likely to favor a bipartisan commission and Democrats would most want the Justice Department to lead the probe.

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Implications

One of the key findings of this Gallup Poll is that a majority of Americans in retrospect believe the use of harsh interrogation techniques by the Bush administration was justified. Some of those who believe the techniques were justified still believe that an investigation into what transpired would be appropriate, but when all is said and done, just a bare majority of 51% of Americans support an investigation, while 42% oppose it.

President Obama did not call for an investigation when releasing the details of the Bush team's legal opinions on the use of harsh terrorism techniques, but seemed to leave open the possibility last week.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,044 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 24-25, 2009, as part of Gallup Poll Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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