No Backlash Against Torture

03/02/2015 08:23 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Just before the U.S. Senate released its report at the end of 2014 on the CIA's use of "harsh interrogation" tactics against prisoners, the question was whether or not the report would provoke a public backlash against torture.

The answer is NO.

By a two-to-one margin in an ABC News poll just after the release of the Senate report, Americans said "all in all" the CIA methods were justified. Polls by Pew, CBS News, and YouGov showed agreement, their variations were due to differences in question wording and order. And after the New Year, Pew showed that by a 5 to 3 margin (54 percent - 33 percent), Americans continue to have a favorable view of the CIA.

Why there is no backlash against torture is a question that the public answered primarily with indifference.

First, those "harshly interrogated" by the CIA were either terrorists, suspected terrorists, people suspected of knowing terrorists, or people suspected of knowing about things terrorists might do. Though one in four was mistakenly imprisoned, many American voters are not sympathetic.

Second, none of those harshly interrogated were Americans. One might guess that public reaction would be different if those tortured had been American. But perhaps not. Opinion polls show the public is historically unsympathetic to both criminals and suspected criminals, foreign or domestic.

Third, a substantial number of voters believe torture is effective. This is an intuitive and understandable belief, though it has been disproved over and again, and has been criticized even by successful military interrogators. But beliefs are difficult to change, and this one was not broadly challenged, despite a number of U.S. senators who tried to do so.

The point of much of the Senate report was that CIA's interrogation program was not effective even according to the CIA's own records. Yet key partisan leaders rose to assert that torture works and that important information was extracted by it. They were backed-up by several CIA directors and deputy directors. And in a subsequent Washington Post/ABC News poll, the public by a 5-to-3 ratio agreed the CIA methods had produced "important information."

For many people, if torture is effective, then voters can conclude that it is justified to save lives. If torture is ineffective, the downside is only that some foreign terrorists were tortured.

Instead of sparking a backlash against the CIA's conduct, debate turned to the motives of the senators and whether or not the report was partisan (by a 5 to 4 margin, 47 percent - 36 percent, voters said it was unfair), and whether or not the report was immediately damaging to U.S. interests abroad (it was thought so by a similar 5 to 4 margin, 52 percent - 43 percent). Thus, other questions ripe for debate were not put to the American citizen and received little attention.

Americans did not end up debating whether torture is unjustified if it is ineffective, as one organization did in 2011. As one study shows, the view that torture is both justified and effective is sometimes conflated with feelings of vengeance. Asking whether torture is (un)justified if it is (in)effective would help sort out some of these motivations.

Another question little debated was whether the CIA's interrogation program did more to help the anti-terrorist effort or more to hurt it by damaging America's reputation and standing in the world. Does America cede important moral high-ground in using torture, or is this ethical advantage not important for rallying public support in the future?

Also obscured was the question of whether Americans approve or disapprove of the CIA's outsourcing of torturers to a private business. The CIA had the opportunity to rely on its own people, or to recruit or borrow trained interrogators from the uniformed services and from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Instead, the CIA contracted with a private business led by two psychologists. So while the public debated CIA torture, it largely overlooked the fact that the program was designed, implemented, managed, and evaluated by two private contractors who made over $80 million dollars and had indemnity agreements with the CIA.

Finally, the question of whether or not torture is acceptable for other countries and other organizations was not debated. If these methods are acceptable for America's defense purposes, are they now acceptable for others engaged in defending their citizens? And to what extent is the public concerned that the U.S. has set a precedent that will rebound on American soldiers?

So, no backlash against torture. The American people have spoken -- largely by their silence on the issue. Our speculation might now turn to whether we as pollsters and others as civic leaders failed to ask the public the right questions.