Gitmo and Torture: Slam Dunks?

Jan 21, 2009 1:00pm

Majorities of Americans support Barack Obama’s positions on Guantanamo and the torture of terrorism suspects – but with enough doubters to make those policies something less than a slam dunk in terms of public opinion.

Obama’s made both marquee issues in his incoming administration, filing a motion to put Guantanamo prosecutions on hold and reiterating his opposition to torture.

On Gitmo, 53 percent in our latest ABC/Post poll support finding some other way to deal with terrorism suspects; 42 percent instead would keep the military detention center open. On torture, 58 percent favor an outright ban, while 40 percent wouldn’t flatly rule it out.

The public divides on a related issue, whether the Obama administration should investigate to see if any laws were broken in the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism suspects, with 50 percent in favor, 47 percent opposed. The split is sharply partisan: Sixty-nine percent of Democrats would investigate; 69 percent of Republicans, not.

GITMO – Closing Guantanamo has not been a top public priority: Among eight non-economic items tested in an ABC/Post poll in December, it finished last on the list as something Obama should do.

Among those who favor another approach, six in 10 prefer to see suspects now held at Guantanamo tried in the regular U.S. court system. A third would rather send them for trial in their home countries – an effort made difficult, in any case, by the unwillingness of some countries to accept them.

TORTURE – On torture, previous polling has shown majority opposition in principle, but less so if it’s associated with a demonstrable benefit – specifically, saving lives by preventing a terrorist attack. There’s debate over whether such benefit can be reliably demonstrated, as well as about what exactly constitutes torture.

Since the wording of questions is particularly important on this issue, here’s what we asked:

“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?”

As noted, 58 percent favored no torture under any circumstances; 40 percent said there are cases in which it should be considered. Among other differences is a big gender gap: women oppose torture in any case by a 2-1 margin, 65-31 percent; men instead divide evenly on the question: Forty-nine percent rule it out, 50 percent don’t.

The widest gaps, though, are ideological and partisan. At the extremes, 77 percent of liberal Democrats rule it out; 60 percent of conservative Republicans say it should be considered in some cases. In the political center, 56 percent of independents and 57 percent of moderates back Obama on torture; 43 and 42 percent, respectively, don’t.

Views on Gitmo, too, are sharply partisan. As I noted yesterday in discussing the prospects for post-partisanship, 68 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of liberals want it closed; 69 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of conservatives would keep it open. Independents and moderates, as usual, tilt the balance, in this case toward shutting it down.

Overall results follow. This is from our latest ABC/Post poll, conducted by telephone among a random national sample of 1,079 adults Jan. 13-16, with a 3-point error margin.

33. Do you think the United States should continue to
hold suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or should it find another way to
deal with these terrorism suspects?
          Continue to hold   Find another way      No
            at Guantanamo    to deal with them   opinion
1/16/09          42                 53              5
34. (IF FIND ANOTHER WAY TO DEAL WITH SUSPECTS) Which
would you prefer - for the United States to (put these
terrorism suspects on trial in the regular U.S. court
system), or for the United States to (send them for
trial in their home countries)?
          Put on trial in   Send them for trial    No
            U.S. system      in home countries    opin.
1/16/09          62                  33             5
33/34 NET
                ----- Find another way -------
       Hold at       Trial     Trial in     No   No
        Gitmo   NET  in U.S.  home country  op.  op.   
1/16/09   42    53     33          17        3    5
35. 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?
           Support not      There are cases
          using torture   to consider torture   No opin.
1/16/09        58                 40               2
36. (HALF SAMPLE) 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?
          Should   Should not   No opinion
1/16/09     50         47            2

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