Divided Attitudes on Interrogation Techniques Used at Guantanamo

ROCHESTER, N.Y.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–American attitudes to the interrogation methods used with prisoners in Guantanamo are divided. There is nothing close to a consensus. Pluralities of adults, but not majorities, believe the techniques used were harsh and were torture. But pluralities also believe that these techniques were effective in getting information that saved American lives and were justified. The public is split on whether or not they were a violation of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners. Furthermore, a plurality of Americans believes that the United States would have been justified in using these techniques to interrogate Japanese and German prisoners in World War II. But they are divided on whether the Germans and Japanese would have been justified in using them when interrogating American prisoners.

These are some of the findings of The Harris Poll®, a new nationwide survey of 2,681 U.S. adults surveyed online between May 11 and 18, 2009 by Harris Interactive®.

Republicans and Democrats have very different opinions. Most Republicans’ opinions are similar to those expressed by former Vice President Dick Cheney supporting the use of waterboarding and other harsh techniques. Most Democrats line up with President Obama in rejecting their use.

Key findings of this Harris Poll include:

  • A 50% to 32% plurality of adults believes the techniques used at Guantanamo, including waterboarding, were harsh; and,
  • A 43% to 35% plurality believes they were torture; but,
  • A 49% to 22% plurality believes they were effective in getting important information that saved American lives; and,
  • A 47% to 30% plurality believes they were justified; and,
  • Adults are split 36% to 36% on whether these techniques were a violation of the Geneva Convention with 29% not sure.

Would the Use of these Techniques Have Been Justified in World War II?

A substantial 46% to 29% of adults believe that the use of the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo would have been justified, if used in the interrogation of German and Japanese prisoners to save American lives in World War II. The public is split (35% to 38%) on whether or not the Japanese and Germans would have been justified in using these techniques when interrogating American prisoners to save Japanese and German lives.

Big Differences between Republican and Democratic Attitudes

Attitudes to the interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo are sharply polarized by party. Former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke for majorities of Republicans who believe the techniques were justified (71%) and effective (74%). Few Republicans (14%) think their use violated the Geneva Convention. Most Republicans (69%) think the U.S. would have been justified in using them in World War II. A modest majority of Republicans (53%) think the Germans and Japanese would have been justified in using them on American prisoners. Only small minorities of Democrats agree with the majority of Republicans on any of these questions. Independents’ views fall roughly half way between those of Democrats and Republicans.

So What?

Given the complete absence of consensus (with no majorities on any of these questions) it is likely that this is not an issue on which Americans will agree any time soon. And given the sharp polarization of opinion by party, Republican and Democratic leaders will be able to say very different things that will be well received by their supporters, if not by most Americans.

The Harris Poll® #56, June 2, 2009
By Humphrey Taylor, Chairman of The Harris Poll, Harris Interactive


The Harris Poll® was conducted online within the United States May 11 and 18, 2009, among 2,681 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. Full data tables and methodology are available at www.harrisinteractive.com.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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About Harris Interactive

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Harris Interactive Inc. 6/09