In a little noticed story in The New York Times last week, it was reported that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, if elected, would reverse the Obama executive order which put an end to the use of torture practices—euphemized by many as "enhanced interrogation" practices—employed by the US military and CIA during the presidency of George W. Bush.
On Tuesday, Politico reports that the Romney campaign has tapped former legal advisers to President Bush to join their legal team, including Steven Bradbury, "who led the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel from 2005 to 2009 and signed three 2005 memos reassuring the CIA and the DOJ that techniques like waterboarding were legal."
To re-constitute a government torture program may not seem like an especially winning policy position to woo prospective voters. Unless, according to new polling data, the voters one is trying to win over happen to be American.
Commissioned by national security analyst Amy Zegart and conducted by the polling research company YouGov in August, the poll found that 41 percent of respondents said "the United States should torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism" while only only 34 percent said it should not.
Using the same questions as were asked in polls during the Bush presidency in 2005, those supporting torture are now 14 percentage points more prevalent under President Obama. What was more troubling, according to Zegart was that Americans are very specific in the kind of torture they like.
In her recent article for Foreign Policy, Torture Creep, Zegart explains that:
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.
And, in perhaps the most shocking results—to a question that Zegart included just "as a lark"—the poll found that a full 1 in 4 Americans "Americans would stop the next terrorist plot with a several-hundred-kiloton atomic bomb."
The only specific interrogation technique that is less popular now than in 2005, strangely enough, is prolonged sleep deprivation.
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In an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Zegart said that popular culture was perhaps the key ingredient in the pro-torture attitude of many Americans. As CIR recounts:
[Zegart said] popular culture – particularly spy-themed television shows and films – that seemed in part to influence the degree to which Americans supported techniques of varying severity, such as torture. After all, some Twitter users thanked the fictional character Jack Bauer from Fox’s “24” after Osama bin Laden was killed.
Zegart additionally points to research from the Parents Television Council showing that before Sept, 11, 2001, it was “bad guys” who unflinchingly used cruel torture techniques, while American hero-characters crusaded against such practices. That dynamic changed after the hijackings, Zegart explained.
In her own report, Zegart suggests there are two other reasons why support of torture has perhaps grown under President Obama:
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.
Finally, and though Obama may deserve credit for ending some of the worst practices, The Progressive's Matthew Rothschild argues that Mitt Romney's promise to re-introduce things like waterboarding back into the US counter-terrorism playbook.
"This is what happens when there is impunity," argues Rothschild, citing the work of University of Wisconsin professor Al McCoy. "By not prosecuting Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld or Alberto Gonzales and other senior officials who designed the torture policy, and by not prosecuting the CIA agents who actually did the waterboarding, President Obama has left the door open for the torturers."
And, if Zegart's poll is an accurate reflection of the broader culture, there may be a large number of Americans willing to hold that door open as candidates like Mitt Romney wave smiling on their way through.
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