By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 22, 2009
In ordering a suspension of legal action against suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, President Obama is taking a popular path, albeit one without particularly widespread or bipartisan support.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 53 percent of Americans said the United States should shutter the controversial facility in Cuba and find another way to deal with the prisoners there. But 42 percent of those polled, including 69 percent of Republicans, said terrorism suspects should remain at the prison. Most Democrats (68 percent) and independents (55 percent) said they would prefer another way to handle the detainees.
One challenge facing Obama is deciding what to do with the prisoners. In the poll, nearly twice as many who favor closing Guantanamo Bay said detainees should be tried in the U.S. court system than said they should be returned to their home countries.
But the matter was complicated last week by the admission of a top Bush administration official that the U.S. military had tortured a Saudi national held at the prison. A majority of Americans -- 58 percent -- oppose the use of torture in terrorism investigations, backing Obama's pledge that "under my administration, the United States does not torture."
But that is also a position that lacks bipartisan support: In the poll, 71 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents said torture should never be used; but 55 percent of Republicans said there are cases in which the United States should consider using torture.
There is an even larger partisan divide over whether the Obama administration should investigate how suspected terrorists were handled during the Bush administration, with 69 percent of Democrats saying they would like to see such examinations and 69 percent of Republicans saying they would not. Independents divide 53 percent to 45 percent against investigations.
Put together, all Americans break 50 percent in favor of investigations, 47 percent opposed.
Raising the issue of Guantanamo Bay as one of Obama's first actions as president is notable because of how little public outcry there is on the matter. In a Post-ABC poll taken a month ago, closing the prison fell last on an eight-item list of things he should do after taking office, with 18 percent saying it is something he should address immediately.
Nevertheless, some see the action as critical to improving the United States' image abroad. In the poll taken a month ago, majorities across party lines said Obama would be able to improve the country's image once in office.
The poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephones from Jan. 13 to 16, among a random national sample of 1,079 adults. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.