Various media reports of recent polling give the misleading impression that a majority of Americans approve of the harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA after 9/11 and discussed in the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report.

A key example is the December 16 article in The Washington Post with the headline “A majority of Americans support harsh CIA methods, poll finds.” The conclusion in the headline is not supported by the actual polling data referenced (from Washington Post/ABC News) and is strongly contradicted by past polling, including polling done by Washington Post/ABC News.

First, none of the polls asked respondents to evaluate the actual methods. For example, the new Washington Post/ABC poll simply asked whether “the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified.” There was no specification of what the treatment was or even that it was harsh. Thus when 59 percent said it was justified it is not clear what they were referring to. Pew and CBS released the results of similarly-worded questions with both finding 51 percent saying that this unspecified treatment was justified.

Second the question did not ask respondents whether they actually “supported” the treatment—only whether it was justified. It is not hard to imagine that people might feel it was justified to torture the masterminds of the 9/11 attack, just as people might have thought it was justified for Jack Ruby to kill Lee Harvey Oswald. This does not mean that they necessarily approve of it.

Most significant when polls have asked directly whether respondents approve of specific harsh interrogation techniques large majorities say they do not. This was even true in the few years after 9/11 when anger toward terrorists was even stronger.

In 2004 the Washington Post/ABC found very large majorities rejecting waterboarding (78 percent), punching/kicking (69 percent), sexual humiliation (84 percent), forced nakedness (74 percent), denying food and water (61 percent), and exposure to extreme heat and cold (58 percent). 

Polling by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, conducted in 2004 and 2009, found similar results, even when respondents were asked to imagine that the detainee has “information about a possible terrorist attack on the United States that may prove critical to stopping the attack.” The only techniques found acceptable were sleep deprivation (53 percent) and hooding (54 percent).  

Interestingly, these findings from Washington Post /ABC News and PIPA were included in a comprehensive analysis of polling on torture in an article published December 11th on the Washington Post site, titled ”No, Americans aren’t ‘fine with torture.’ They strongly reject it.“

PIPA in 2009 also asked broader questions about having “treaties establishing international laws governing how a country, in the context of armed conflict, must treat an individual it has detained.” Three quarters approved of such treaties. The same number of also approved of having a rule against physical torture, while just 21 percent of respondents said the rule was too restrictive.

A comprehensive review of US and international polling on torture can also be found in the WPO digest on human rights.

Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation (formerly the Program on International Policy Attitudes), affiliated with the University of Maryland.