The Poll Watchers
Americans Split on How to Interrogate
Majority Polled Oppose Using Torture
By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page A20
Most Americans reject torture as a technique to force suspected terrorists to answer questions about possible attacks but are divided on whether less harsh forms of physical abuse should be allowed to compel uncooperative suspects to reveal information that could save lives, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Sixty-three percent say torture is never acceptable, even in cases in which a suspect is believed to have knowledge of an upcoming terrorist attack. Slightly more than one in three say torture can be used in some cases.
The Geneva Conventions ban torture and other extreme techniques, such as the use of dogs, to coerce detainees and prisoners of war into providing information. The United States has publicly stated that it does not torture prisoners, though it does use "stress and duress."
Americans are more divided on whether lesser forms of physical abuse should be allowed. Slightly more than half of those interviewed -- 52 percent -- rejected the use of less extreme forms of physical abuse to compel suspects to reveal potentially lifesaving information to investigators, while 46 percent say these tactics are sometimes acceptable.
Among the techniques that a majority of Americans see as allowable: depriving a suspected terrorist of sleep (66 percent), keeping a hood on a suspect for long periods (57 percent), and playing loud music or other noises for extended periods (54 percent). All of these techniques have reportedly been used in Iraq and elsewhere to force suspects to talk to military or government investigators.
Among the techniques Americans reject are some of those featured in photographs and videos that have become the chilling visual record of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
Clear majorities rejected sexually humiliating a suspect (84 percent), applying electric shocks to a prisoner (82 percent), threatening to harm the suspect's family (80 percent), holding a suspect's head under water (78 percent), forcing the suspect to go naked (74 percent), punching or kicking a suspect (69 percent), withholding food or water (61 percent), exposing the suspect to extreme heat or cold (58 percent), or threatening to shoot the suspect (57 percent).
Despite widespread objections to these techniques, only a third of Americans would define what happened at Abu Ghraib as torture.
Women and lower-income Americans were significantly less likely to approve of the strategic use of torture.
Opposition to torture peaked among those 65 and older. Four in 10 Republicans and nearly as many political independents said torture is sometimes acceptable, a view held by 27 percent of Democrats.
Americans most concerned about terrorism were also more willing to use extreme techniques. A majority (55 percent) of those who said terrorism would be their top voting issue also said they would condone the use of torture against suspected terrorists under certain circumstances.
Despite claims by the U.S. government that it does not condone torture, half the public believes that torture is taking place as a matter of policy; 66 percent think military policy allows for physical abuse of prisoners.
The Bush administration has made distinctions between allowable treatment for international terrorists, such as suspected members of al Qaeda, and treatment of captured Iraqi insurgents, but the poll suggests that the public is not making similar distinctions. Equal proportions would back torture or physical abuse in the case of those "suspected of recent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan" as in the case of suspected terrorists.
A total of 1,005 randomly selected adults were interviewed May 20 to 23. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company