Asked about the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program, former Vice President Dick Cheney replied, “I’d do it again in a minute.” Many opponents of the program regard him as the relic of a time in which the United States was caught up in a national security panic. They are wrong: even with the benefit of hindsight, a majority of the American people are prepared to endorse what they regard as torture to safeguard the country.
We know this because during the past week, several of the country’s most respected public opinion polls have probed public attitudes about the CIA program and have obtained virtually identical results. The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 51 percent endorsing the view that the interrogations were “acceptable under the circumstances” versus only 28 percent who thought they “went too far and were wrong.” According to the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans thought that the CIA’s interrogation methods are justified, while 29 percent disagreed. The ABC/Washington Post poll found 59 percent of respondents endorsing the interrogations; only 31 percent disagreed.
Although Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and others have argued that the CIA program produced no useful results, most Americans have reached the opposite conclusion. The Pew, ABC/Washington Post, and CBS/New York Times surveys all found substantial majorities agreeing that the CIA tactics had helped prevent future terrorist attacks. By a margin of 53 to 31 percent, the ABC/Washington Post respondents directly disputed Sen. Feinstein’s claim that the information from the CIA program could have been obtained using other means.
The American people could have simplified this issue and let themselves off the moral hook by denying that what the CIA did was torture. They did not. According to the ABC/Washington Post survey, 49 percent thought that it “amounted to” torture, compared to 38 percent who thought it did not. Probing the details, CBS/NYT found about 7 to 10 Americans affirming that techniques such as waterboarding are indeed forms of torture. Like just about everything else in contemporary politics, these judgments are deeply polarized. Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to believe that the CIA tactics amount to torture; liberals are twice as likely to do so as conservatives.
Despite the acknowledgment that their government engaged in torture, many Americans are prepared to countenance similar tactics if exigent circumstances present themselves again. According to NBC/WSJ, 45 percent say these practices should be used in the future, versus only 28 percent who think they shouldn’t. The ABC/Washington Post poll posed the question in its bluntest form: “Looking ahead, do you feel that torture of suspected terrorists can often be justified, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?” 17 percent of respondents said “often”; 40 percent “sometimes”; 19 percent “rarely”; and 20 percent “never.” In short, only one in five Americans are prepared to endorse the absolutist moral position that torture is per se wrong and should be avoided, whatever the circumstances.
Opinion surveys can never resolve moral arguments. But they can shape public policy. By endorsing the CIA tactics both retrospectively and prospectively, the American people have taken ownership of this program, expanding the options available to future administrations facing threats that don’t fit classic wartime paradigms. Indeed, future presidents who refrain from doing what the Bush-Cheney administration did may well find themselves politically exposed—especially if terrorists once again manage to kill large numbers of Americans.
And proponents of transparency and accountability in future national security matters could take little comfort in the public’s response to this episode. Only a small minority of Americans think that criminal charges should be brought against those involved in the CIA program, and no survey found as much as a plurality favoring the public release of the Senate report.
Unless the public changes its mind, future administrations are empowered to act as forcefully as the Bush administration did, with little fear of either legal or political retribution. Americans who oppose torture as a matter of moral principle can rely only on their future leaders’ inner compass.