New poll on torture and investigations negates Beltway conventional wisdom

Majorities of Americans oppose torture in all cases, want Guantanamo closed, favor civilian trials for terrorist suspects, and support investigations into Bush crimes.

Published January 22, 2009 1:45PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

One of the most common and most corrosive aspects of our political discourse is the endless assertions -- based on nothing -- about what "Americans believe."  It is exceedingly conventional wisdom that Americans generally view the world through the prism of Jack Bauer and therefore want our government to torture, want Guantanamo kept opened, and do not want suspected Terrorists to be tried in civilian courts inside the U.S.  It is even more commonly asserted that Americans do not want, and even further, would never tolerate, criminal investigations into the various crimes of Bush officials.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday negates all of those beliefs.  Here was the question that was asked about torture -- note that it's phrased in the most pro-torture manner possible, because it is grounded in the ludicrous, 24-clichéd "ticking time bomb" excuse that is the most commonly used argument by torture advocates:

Q. Obama has said that under his administration the United States will not use torture as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, no matter what the circumstance. Do you support this position not to use torture, or do you think there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects?

By a wide margin --  58-40% -- Americans say that torture should never be used, no matter the circumstances.  Let's repeat that:  "no matter the circumstance."  That margin is enormous among Democrats (71-28%) and substantial among independents (56-43%).  As usual these days, Republicans hold the minority view, but even among them there is substantial categorical opposition to torture (42-55%).

Moreover, a majority of Americans (53-42%) favor the closing of Guantanamo, with large support among Democrats (68%) and independents (55%).  Even more significantly, a very solid majority of those favoring the closing of Guantanamo recognize exactly what ought to be done with detainees who the government believes are guilty of terrorism-related crimes -- it's exactly what the ACLU and civil libertarians generally urge be done:

One reason for Obama's order on judicial proceedings is to figure out just how to handle those suspects, and among those in the new poll who want Gitmo closed, more than six in 10 said they should be put on trial in the regular U.S. court system. A third said they'd like them to face justice in their home countries. 

Even more surprisingly for spouters of conventional wisdom, a majority of Americans (50-47%) believe that the Obama administration should investigate whether the Bush administration's treatment of detainees was illegal.  When asked:  "Do you think the Obama administration should or should not investigate whether any laws were broken in the way terrorism suspects were treated under the Bush administration?," Democrats overwhelmingly favor such investigations (69%), while Republicans oppose them by the same margin, and independents are slightly against. 

Relatedly, Americans would have opposed (52-42%) the issuance of pardons by Bush to those "who carried out his administration's policy on the treatment of terrorism suspects."  The poll confined itself in these questions to investigations into detainee abuse, and did not ask about investigations into other Bush crimes, such as illegal spying, obstruction of justice and various DOJ crimes.

What's most remarkable about the fact that a majority of Americans favor investigations is that one has to struggle to find even a single politician of national significance or a prominent media figure who argue that position.  The notion that Bush officials shouldn't be criminally investigated is about as close to a lockstep consensus among political and media elites as it gets, and yet, still, a majority of Americans favor such investigations.

One can, of course, debate the significance of public opinion on these questions.  In general, the fact that a majority or even a large majority believe X does not make X true or right.  And one should avoid relying too much on a single poll, since results can and typically do vary based on the wording of questions, sample size and the like.  One could probably devise polls with slight wording changes to generate marginally different results.

Still, when assertions are made in political debates about "what Americans believe," those assertions should not be made baselessly, inaccurately or manipulatively.  Yet, as this poll demonstrates, that's exactly how such claims are typically made.  For years it was conventional wisdom -- repeated endlessly -- that American majorities don't care about constitutional liberties and thus wanted the Government to spy without warrants, even if doing so was against the law.  Yet polls continuously showed that was not the case.

These results are not really surprising.  The Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon's forced resignation and the imprisonment of many of his top aides ingrained the idea in the American political landscape (though not in the minds of our political class) that high political officials are not above the law and must not be allowed to escape consequences when they commit felonies.  Americans are also inculcated early on with an emphasis on the primacy of our constitutional values.  The Republicans have failed miserably in two straight elections by making one of the centerpieces of their campaign the fear-mongering warning that Democrats would cause us all to be slaughtered by Terrorists because they would put an end to illegal spying, torture, secret detentions and the like.

Our political elites endlessly deny these facts -- and insist that Americans don't care about the rule of law and Constitutional values -- because that's how they excuse their own violations and their refusal to hold themselves accountable:  "We can't investigate Bush because the public wouldn't tolerate it; we can't abide by Constitutional norms because we'll lose elections if we appear soft on terror."  But those claims are false.  There may (or may not be) reasonable grounds for arguing against constitutional protections and imposing consequences on those who violate them, but the fact that public opinion won't permit such actions is quite clearly not one of those grounds.


UPDATE:  In the last week alone, The Washington Post's David Ignatius twice said that those who advocate investigations into Bush crimes are nothing more than "liberal score-settlers."  Newsweek's Jon Barry angrily accused those who advocate investigations of lying about their belief in the rule of law because (he can divine) that they are instead motivated by "vengeance, pure and simple."  And yesterday, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed that it is those on what he called "the hard left" who believe in investigations.

Apparently, it is the case -- yet again -- that majorities of Americans are hard-left, score-settling, vengeance-driven liberals, who embrace views that are claimed by the Beltway to be nothing but "fringe leftist ideological rantings" (a synonym for:  "those who do not believe in prevailing Beltway pieties").


UPDATE II:  Via Balloon-Juice, here's what The Washington Post's Lois Romano said today in her online chat when asked about investigations and prosecutions:

New York, N.Y.: Hi, Lois. I’m hoping you’ll take this question, even though it’s a bit stinging. I’m trying to get my head around the fact that the D.C. establishment (and certain of your colleagues’) conventional wisdom is that it would be a bad idea to prosecute members of the Bush administration for authorizing torture. But I’ve also read that under the terms of international agreements that we are signatories to, that the Obama administration has an obligation to investigate the Bush/Cheney alleged crimes? So how does the law jibe with D.C.-establishment’s commonly held viewpoint that investigations would be counter-productive?

Lois Romano: I’m sure they are looking into the law and reviewing options and responsibilities—and there may be a time to focus on the issue you raise. But I think right now, President Obama wants to follow the concerns of most americans—which are the economy and health care. Starting a partisan fight- even if it is legal- would be a major distraction for him and likely not sit well with millions of americans who are out of work and losing their homes.

When you're a Washington reporter, you have the divine right to speak for what "most Americans" want.  Even when what you say is squarely contradicted by these new inventions called "polls" -- even when those "polls" are published in your very own newspaper -- that is perfectly fine, because journalists like Lois Romano are so in touch with the Average American that she knows better what they really think and believe than they know themselves.  She's the Spokesperson for the Ordinary Person.

On a related note, I think it's safe to bet that these constant questions to Post reporters about their lockstep opposition to investigations are coming, in large part, from blog readers [watch Ruth Marcus, in her chat this week, be completely (and hilariously, almost pitifully) incapable of addressing the onslaught of similar questions about her anti-investigation position], and it can't hurt to continue to press this with them.  The chat schedule for Post reporters and columnists is here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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