Americans still see Bush-era interrogation techniques as justified and effective

One of the nobler, if not the only noble purpose of publicly releasing the Feinsten report was to fuel public debate about the very harsh interrogation techniques used in some instances by the CIA after 9/11. Predictably, though, the rekindled debate has been as stale as the original version had become.

In any event, the returns from the debate are in. A Pew Research survey shows that, by a wide margin, Americans believe that the use of the very harsh techniques was warranted. 51 percent say they think the CIA methods were justified, compared with just 29 percent who say they were not. 20 percent didn’t say.

As to the efficacy of the interrogation methods, 56 percent believe they provided intelligence that helped prevent terrorist attacks. Only half as many say they did not provide this type of intelligence.

Few, I think, will be surprised by these results. Fewer will be surprised that Democrats and Republicans differ significantly in their assessments. It is interesting, however, that Democrats are fairly closely divided. 46 percent of Democrats say the methods were unjustified. 37 percent say they justified. Thus, Feinstein and President Obama can’t even command a majority on this question from their own party.

The new Pew survey results are nearly identical to those Pew obtained in its 2009 poll on the subject. Then, 49 percent of the public said that “the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information” can “often” or “sometimes” be justified. 36 percent of Democrats concurred.

In my view, Sen. Feinstein and company produced and issued this report mainly to settle a score with the CIA, to absolve themselves for supporting the CIA’s program in the past, and more generally to influence historians. Generating a public debate and swaying public opinion were probably secondary concerns.

But public opinion on terrorist interrogation is consequential. If terrorists attack the U.S. again on a large scale, future presidents may well confront the same interrogation options that the Bush administration faced in the aftermath of 9/11. This time, an administration will be acutely conscious of the risks that using “enhanced” techniques carries — condemnation by broad segments of the political community, the press, and world opinion, not to mention persecution via the legal system.

But a future administration will, of course, also be aware of the risk of not doing nearly everything possible to obtain information that will save lives. And polling now confirms that, even after all the yelping of Dianne Feinstein and others, the public still favors harsh interrogation in these circumstances. The fact that less than a third of the country finds these techniques objectionable, even when considering the issue in the relative domestic tranquility of 2014, will tell future presidents that in a crisis, they will have very little cover if harsh techniques are eschewed and another major attack follows.

And, as in 2002, plenty of Democrats will likely be among those imploring the president to do whatever it takes to head off the next attack.

Meanwhile, the next time you hear someone intone that “torturing” terrorists to obtain information “is not who were are as a people,” you should feel free, citing the Pew results, to say “oh, but it is.”