Central Intelligence Director (CIA) Director John Brennan is pushing back hard against the wave of criticism of harsh interrogation tactics employed by intelligence community people against terrorism detainees. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

By a margin of almost 2 to 1 — 59 percent to 31 percent — those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence.

In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”

The new poll comes on the heels of the scathing Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, which President Obama ended in 2009. The report last week concluded that severe interrogation techniques — including waterboarding detainees, placing them in stress positions and keeping them inside confinement boxes — were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.

The report also found that more than two dozen detainees were wrongly held, that the program was poorly managed and that the CIA misled top U.S. officials about the effectiveness of the program.

CIA Interrogations: the ends justify the means

Fifty-four percent of the public agrees with this sentiment, saying the CIA intentionally misled the White House, Congress and the American people about its activities.

The CIA and former intelligence officials have strongly disputed that assertion. Director John Brennan, while acknowledging the spy agency made mistakes, also disputed the Senate’s finding that detainees subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, did not provide useful intelligence information.

“For someone to say that there was no intelligence of value, of use, that came from those detainees once they were subjected to EITs, I think that is — lacks any foundation at all,” Brennan said last week during a rare news conference at the CIA.

He added, though, that “the cause-and-effect relationship” between the use of harsh techniques and useful information subsequently provided by detainees was “unknowable.”

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists produced important information that could not have been obtained any other way, while 31 percent say it did not. Among those who were unconvinced was Lori Skeen, 56, of Covington, Ky., who said she opposed torture on principle.

“The U.S. is not supposed to be that way,” said Skeen, who described herself as an independent voter. “We are not like other countries that do torture. We supposedly don’t do that. It makes us look bad.”

The Sept. 11 attacks don’t “justify torture,” Skeen added.

20 key findings about CIA interrogations
Almost 13 years after the CIA established secret prisons to hold and interrogate detainees, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the CIA’s programs. The report lists 20 key findings.

(Katie Park and Laris Karklis/Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program.)

Thirty-nine detainees underwent harsh questioning. Only three were waterboarded, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11. Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding, or simulated drowning, 183 times.

The Justice Department ruled out the possibility that CIA personnel could face prosecution because of their involvement in the program. Just a third of Americans think criminal charges should be filed against officials who were responsible for the interrogations.

The Senate report was strongly criticized by Republican members of the Intelligence Committee. Despite voting to make it public, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the committee, has said the report was “ideologically motivated.”

The public has apparently seized on such comments. Forty-seven percent say the report was “unfair” to the CIA and 52 percent say it was wrong to release it.

Daniel Muiter, 26, of Smithfield, N.C., a libertarian, said torturing people during war was appropriate if there was reasonable suspicion that the individuals had important information that could aid the United States. But he described himself as “really torn” over the release of the report.

“I am all for government transparency, but I don’t want our enemies using this information against us,” he said.

Views on the CIA’s tactics break down sharply along ideological lines. Liberal Democrats are most disgusted with the agency’s actions, while conservative Republicans are most likely to defend it.

Democrats who identify as moderate or conservative are more supportive of the program, joining majorities of independents and Republicans who say it was justified.

For example, 38 percent of liberal Democrats say the CIA’s actions were justified compared with 82 percent of conservative Republicans who say so.

In a CBS News poll released Monday, nearly 7 in 10 considered waterboarding torture, but about half said that the technique and others are, at times, justified. Fifty-seven percent said harsh interrogation techniques can provide information that can prevent terrorist attacks.

Both polls found a majority who thought releasing the report could jeopardize national security.

The Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 11 to Dec. 14, among a random national sample of 1,000 adults. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.