fdu_public_mind_pollMADISON, NJ - Americans are divided over whether the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods constitute “torture” or are better viewed as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs). But according to a national telephone poll of adults by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind™, the “enhanced” label is slightly preferred over “torture,” 46% to 40%.

Two in three (68%) Republicans say the methods are enhanced techniques, compared to one in three Democrats (33%).  A majority of Democrats (55%) view the methods as torture, as compared to just 22% of Republicans. “Partisan differences over the interrogation program extend even to the definition of the methods, about whether they amount to torture,” said John W. Schiemann, a professor of political science at FDU and author of an article on interrogational torture in the December 2011 issue of Political Research Quarterly.

Americans who feel the methods are justified are more likely to believe they should be called EITs, whereas those who feel they are not justified are more likely to call them torture. “It comes as little surprise that those who feel harsh interrogations are justified prefer not to call them torture, whereas those who oppose them do refer to the program as torture,” said Schiemann.

Nearly three in four Americans (73%) say harsh interrogation methods can be justified, even if only rarely, as opposed to just one in five (20%) who say they can never be justified. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the methods are “often” or “sometimes” justified (78% to 44%), while 27% of Democrats say torture is “never” justified, and just 5% of Republicans agree.

Two in three Americans (65%) say torture is “somewhat” or “very” effective. Just 23% say such methods are not very effective or not effective at all. Males are more likely than females to say torture is very effective (41%-25%), and Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to say it is very effective (50%-21%-33%). Democrats are more likely than both independents and Republicans to say that the methods are “not effective at all” (24%-11%-5%).

 “The successful operation against bin Laden revived the debate over whether the CIA’s interrogation program led to useful intelligence and whether the harsh methods were justified,” said Schiemann. “Bin Laden was bad guy No. 1, and most Americans believe that the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods are both effective and justified. This is particularly true for Republicans and independents.”

When those who say that the methods are effective and justified, even if only rarely, are asked if the harsh methods would be justified if they were not effective, 64% say they would not be justified and 18% say the methods would still be justified. The more the methods are perceived as effective, the more likely Americans are to say harsh interrogation is justified.

 “Support for harsh interrogation methods by most Americans depends on the perceived effectiveness of the techniques,” said Schiemann. “Two-thirds of those who think the methods are effective and justified would withdraw their support if they thought the methods didn’t work.”

Schiemann added that, “To the extent this is an issue in the presidential election, it will appeal to the Republican base. But Obama and the Democrats must be more cautious, given that a broad middle of Americans, including nearly eight in 10 independents, think the techniques can be both effective and justified.”

In response to the survey results, Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator in Iraq and author of Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist says the U.S. public needs to be educated on the question effectiveness CIA interrogations.  "What Americans need to understand about this issue are three things. First, the definition of "works" has to include the long-term ramifications of using torture, which include helping Al Qaeda recruit new members, making other detainees less cooperative, and exposing our own troops to such treatment in future conflicts at the hands of our enemies. 

“Second, there are other tactics of war that are not used based on a morality and legal argument, such as mustard gas and flamethrowers, even though they are 100% effective and could save U.S. lives.  The reason we don't use them is because they are immoral and cause unnecessary human suffering and have been outlawed by international law and the laws of war, just like torture. 

“And finally, Americans should understand that interrogators can and have done their jobs successfully without using torture.  Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and now Osama bin Laden -- all found without using torture.  And we made it through World War II without it facing two much more powerful foes."

The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 808 adults nationwide was conducted by telephone using both landlines and cell phones from June 1 through 7, 2011, and has a margin of error of +/-3.5 percentage points.