Back in 2005, after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, a Gallup poll asked Americans whether they would be willing to use torture if suspected terrorists "may know details about future terrorist attacks against the U.S." Just 38 percent agreed.
That same week, a Newsweek poll asked basically the same question: Where Americans would support torture "if it might lead to the prevention of a major terrorist attack." A full 58 percent said indeed they would.
Meet the confused American voter.
Even more so than most issues, though, torture polling is all over the map.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll around the same time showed 64 percent said the use of torture against terrorism suspects was "unacceptable." The same Newsweek poll mentioned above, though, gave people four options -- "often justified," "sometimes justified," "rarely justified," and "never justified" -- and just 33 percent of Americans said torture was "never" justified.
(Some people lump the "rarely" in with the "never," but only "never" really comports with the idea that torture is "unacceptable.")
That confusion has persisted since Abu Ghraib, through the waterboarding debate and up until Tuesday's release of a report on interrogation techniques used by the CIA since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- some which have been labeled as "torture" by President Obama and other critics.
Pew in 2011 showed 24 percent of Americans said torture should "never" be used -- little-changed from the 25 percent who said that same in 2009. But also in 2009, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Americans were actually about evenly split on torture, with 48 percent saying it could be used "in some cases" and 49 percent saying "never."
The reason for the even split? Probably because people were given just two options rather than four. And so people who might otherwise say torture should "rarely" be used are temped to say "never," because they really don't like the idea of it.
(This also might be the reason for the difference at the top of this post. Newsweek asked its binary question on torture and preventing terrorist attacks after initially offering four options for torture in general. Thus, those who chose "rarely justified" among the four options were probably more apt to support at least some use of torture when asked for a straight yes-or-no answer.)
So in sum, depending on how you ask the question, support for using torture in at least some cases -- even rare ones -- has polled at 70 percent-plus, around 50 percent, and also at just 38 percent.
The point of this is not to pick on Americans or the polling industry. It's to make a point. The point is that Tuesday's report was released by outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to move the needle on torture/enhanced interrogation techniques in hopes of averting future use of such techniques. But that effort is severely complicated by a very mushy middle of the American public that offers wildly different thoughts on torture.
Abu Ghraib didn't really move that needle very much, in the long run. We'll see if Tuesday's report lands with more impact.