US Elections Editor

Most Americans think torture can be justified, but hardly anyone thinks "rectal feeding" is acceptable

This week saw the release of a long-awaited Senate report detailing the post-9/11 CIA detention and interrogation program with a focus on the agency's the use of torture. According to the report, interrogation procedures used on some detainees that were much harsher and less effective than previously acknowledged. Critics, including former CIA interrogators and Bush administration officials, have called the report politically motivated and inaccurate.

When Americans are asked about suspected terrorists “who may know details about future attacks against the U.S.”, only 24% are prepared to say the use of torture is “never” justified. Nearly as many, 20%, say the use of torture is “always” justified, while the remainder say it’s either “sometimes” (28%) or only “rarely” (18%) justified – a total of 66% who are unwilling to rule out torture completely. There has been little change in views from April, before the release of the report, when 22% said torture was never justified

Ask people specifically about interrogation tactics detailed in the report, and a more complicated picture emerges. In fact only one tactic – depriving a detainee of sleep – is deemed acceptable by the majority of the public. More people reject than accept seven of the eight other tactics, including waterboarding, which is seen as unacceptable by 45-35%.

By far the least popular tactic was feeding a detainee by pumping a food into his anus, a practice the report calls “rectal feeding”, which three-quarters of Americans say is unacceptable.

Like so many other issues, views about torture are highly polarized politically. 38% of Democrats say torture is never justified, compared to just 11% of Republicans. Republicans are also more open to all of the specified tactics than their Democratic counterparts. In fact, while Democrats tend to say all of the nine tactics are unacceptable, Republicans tend to say all of them are acceptable with one exception – people of all political persuasions reject the use of rectal feeding.

People are divided along these same political lines on several other aspects of the debate over the torture, some addressed by the report. 54% Democrats believe the information gained through torture is unreliable; 56% of Republicans think it’s reliable. 58% of Democrats think it is possible to fight terrorism without using torture, while 46% of Republicans think it’s impossible. 

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This article has been edited for clarity. 

Full poll results can be found here and here

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