The U.S. reacted in shock Tuesday to the release of a damning report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s routine torturing of suspected terrorists, but for years many Americans said they considered so-called enhanced interrogation techniques necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. Over the course of George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency and even after the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, Americans increasingly said they favored torture tactics, especially when they believed it would lead to vital information or save lives, according to research from Reed College in Portland and the University of California, Irvine, published in 2010.
Despite Obama ostensibly banning torture as a means of extracting information from U.S. detainees in 2009, 47 percent of respondents to an April survey from YouGov said the use of harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding were “sometimes” or “always” justified, while only 22 percent said such torture tactics were “never” justified – a dramatic shift in the country’s moral compass from 10 years ago, when 82 percent of Americans said they considered such extreme tactics to be wrong.
The figures from this year are consistent with a trend seen throughout the Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Overall, most Americans have remained opposed to torture, but “opposition to torture has declined” since 2004, according to researchers who described American support for torture as a “very recent phenomenon.”
“A majority supporting torture did not emerge until June 2009, six months after the inauguration of [Obama],” according to the study. Researchers considered 32 polls conducted between 2001 and 2009 from a variety of media and survey groups that asked Americans to gauge their support for torturing suspected terrorists. They found that “the mean over the nine-year period is 55 percent in opposition to and 40.8 percent in favor of the use of torture.” Between 2004 and 2009, public opinion polls showed fewer Americans opposed torture, while an increasing number of Americans said they supported some forms of it. Public support for torture hit an all-time high in 2009.
Researchers said the tilt in public opinion toward torture occurred largely because of the politically polarizing nature of the torture debate. “We believe that torture may have become a partisan symbol, distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, that demonstrates hawkishness on national security in the same way that being supportive of the death penalty indicates that a person is tough on crime,” researchers wrote.
The U.S. learned on Tuesday that the interrogation tactics used by the CIA against suspected terrorists were much harsher than was previously thought. Among other things, the report revealed that the agency routinely waterboarded detainees to the point of vomiting and often deprived prisoners of sleep for up to a week at a time. The report, compiled between 2009 and 2013, angered many lawmakers who said the CIA had misled them about the nature of its interrogation tactics.
The CIA, however, defended its use of questionable interrogation techniques. “We acknowledge that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the agency made mistakes ... [but] our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives,” said the agency’s director, John Brennan, following the report’s release.