Amy Zegart

Torture Creep

Why are more Americans accepting Bush-era policies than ever before?


A quarter of all Americans are willing to use nuclear weapons to kill terrorists. No joke. This was among many surprising findings in a new national poll that YouGov recently ran for me on hot-button intelligence issues. (The poll, conducted between Aug. 24 and 30, 2012, surveyed 1,000 people and has a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points).

To be honest, I threw in the nuclear bomb question on a lark, not expecting to find much. Boy, was I wrong. Aside from learning that 25 percent of Americans would stop the next terrorist plot with a several-hundred-kiloton atomic bomb, the poll numbers suggest that Americans have become more hawkish on counterterrorism policy since Barack Obama became president.

Consider this: In an October 2007 Rasmussen poll, 27 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism, while 53 percent said it should not. In my YouGov poll, 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.

Sure, the devil is in the details. Poll responses are highly susceptible to question wording. So I had the pollsters ask some of the exact same questions in the exact same way that appeared in a January 2005 USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, the most detailed pre-Obama poll on interrogation techniques that I could find. It turns out that Americans don’t just like the general idea of torture more now. They like specific torture techniques more too.

Respondents in 2012 are more pro-waterboarding, pro-threatening prisoners with dogs, pro-religious humiliation, and pro-forcing-prisoners-to-remain-naked-and-chained-in-uncomfortable-positions-in-cold-rooms. In 2005, 18 percent said they believed the naked chaining approach was OK, while 79 percent thought it was wrong. In 2012, 30 percent of Americans thought this technique was right, an increase of 12 points, while just 51 percent thought it was wrong, a drop of 28 points. In 2005, only 16 percent approved of waterboarding suspected terrorists, while an overwhelming majority (82 percent) thought it was wrong to strap people on boards and force their heads underwater to simulate drowning. Now, 25 percent of Americans believe in waterboarding terrorists, and only 55 percent think it’s wrong. The only specific interrogation technique that is less popular now than in 2005, strangely enough, is prolonged sleep deprivation.

Support for assassinating terrorists has also grown, though not as much as for torturing them. In part this is because assassinations have always been quite popular. In that same 2005 poll, 65 percent were willing to assassinate known terrorists. Today, 69 percent are. Perhaps more interestingly, the percentage of Americans who say they are unwilling to assassinate known terrorists has declined dramatically, from 33 percent in 2005 to just 12 percent today. The public’s enthusiasm for assassinations extends to foreign leaders who harbor them. In both the 2005 and 2012 polls, more than a third of respondents (37 percent and 36 percent, respectively) were willing to kill foreign leaders who "harbor terrorists," even though it’s not at all clear what "harboring terrorists" really means (is it harboring when a government is too weak or inept to combat terrorists inside its borders?). Keep in mind that there is also this little detail called the law, which has banned assassinating heads of state since 1976, when Congress discovered the CIA had been secretly concocting plans to kill Fidel Castro and other Third World leaders using poison, hit men, and even exploding seashells.

So why exactly have Americans become more supportive of torturing and assassinating terrorists under Obama than they were under President George W. Bush? Many reasons, I suspect. But three possibilities seem most likely. First, it’s always easier to support controversial policies after the controversy fades. Maybe respondents feel more comfortable supporting torture and assassination when Christopher Hitchens isn’t waterboarding himself, Abu Ghraib photos aren’t plastered all over the Internet, and Saturday Night Live isn’t doing those Lynndie England skits. Or as Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Matt Baum put it more eloquently, "It is possible that support for these policies hit a low point after the Abu Ghraib scandal and has more recently rebounded to its prior equilibrium."

Second, there may be an "only Nixon can go to China" logic at work. Because Republicans have a general reputation for being tough on national security and Democrats have (or at least used to have) a general reputation for being weak on national security, Americans are more likely to think assassinations and harsh interrogation practices are justified if a Democratic president uses them. Conversely, they are more likely to trust diplomacy when the president conducting it is a Rambo-minded Republican. But this logic does not quite fit the facts. Although it is true that Obama has continued and even expanded many contentious Bush-era counterterrorism policies — military commissions, indefinite detentions, and the targeted-killing-by-drone program — harsh interrogation policies are not among them. On Jan. 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, Obama signed an executive order that made waterboarding and any other interrogation methods not listed in Army Field Manual 2-22.3 illegal.

This leaves option three: media effects — specifically, the influence of spy movies and TV shows. This sounds silly, I know, but the data say otherwise. As I noted in my last column, spy-themed entertainment has skyrocketed over the past decade or so. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the boundary between fake spies and the real world is blurring in some disconcerting ways, from CIA directors pondering Hollywood hypotheticals in their confirmation hearings to Twitter users thanking Jack Bauer when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Now, this new poll is the first hard data suggesting that spy fiction might be influencing public opinion about real intelligence issues. The YouGov poll results reveal that Americans who say they frequently watch spy-themed television shows or movies are significantly more likely than infrequent watchers to approve of assassinating terrorists, torturing terrorists, and using every torture technique pollsters asked about except threatening terrorist detainees with dogs. (Spytainment fans, however, are not more likely to support dropping nuclear bombs on terrorists or assassinating foreign leaders than anyone else.) Here are just a few examples of the statistically significant results:

  • 84 percent of frequent spy TV watchers are willing to assassinate terrorists vs. 70 percent of infrequent watchers
  • 38 percent of frequent spy TV watchers believe waterboarding is right vs. 28 percent of infrequent watchers
  • 60 percent of frequent spy TV watchers think transferring a terrorist to a country known for using torture is right vs. 45 percent of infrequent watchers
  • 34 percent of spy-movie goers say that chaining naked terrorist detainees in uncomfortable positions is right vs. 27 percent of non-movie goers
  • 53 percent of spy-movie goers support transferring terrorists to a country known for using torture vs. 41 percent of non-movie goers.

Of course, these results do not prove that spy-themed entertainment is causing anything. It could be that James Bond and Jason Bourne fans are just naturally more hawkish than the average Joe and are drawn to spytainment because of beliefs they already have. But I have my doubts. Entertainment can and has shifted popular culture and attitudes on other subjects. When L.A. Law was a hit television show in the late 1980s, law school applications hit record levels. The Navy still talks about the movie Top Gun as one of its best recruiting tools. More recently, prosecutors have been bemoaning "the CSI effect" — how the popular television show has led jurors to expect fancy forensic evidence in court and to assume the government’s case is weak without it. Before the 9/11 attacks, torture was almost always depicted in television and movies as something that bad guys did. That’s not true anymore. The Bush administration may be over, but Bush-era terrorist torture and assassination policies are growing more popular.

 Twitter: @AmyZegart

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