Why do More Americans Support Torturing and Killing Terrorists Now than in the Bush Administration?

YouGov recently ran a national poll for me on hot-button intelligence issues. Many of the results are surprising. Among them: Americans support torturing terrorists more now than they did in 2005. A lot more. I discuss why in my foreignpolicy.com column here: http://bit.ly/SQiHPK

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

18 thoughts on “Why do More Americans Support Torturing and Killing Terrorists Now than in the Bush Administration?”

  1. wait, do you mean more support torture
    more support killing,
    more support (torture AND killing) terrorists.

    putting the two next to each other in a poll may have serious bleed-over effects

  2. I can tell you why I support many things that I didn’t before: I trust Barack Obama to make good judgements.

    I accept the idea that the Big Boss may have to do things that would be morally repugnant if done by a normal person, eg, I am not categorically opposed to war. I do not like the idea of the government torturing people but can certainly conceive circumstances where it might be necessary (the nuke hidden in Manhattan scenario, for example). Same with killing. I also recognize that sovereign power requires some tough moral choices.

    When George Bush said something was necessary, like invading Iraq or tapping our phone lines, I made a judgement about how likely it was that he understood the facts, considered all the options and made a judgement based on values that I respect. My judgement, since I considered him to be a bully who considered thinking things through to be a waste of time, was not favorable to him. If I were polled, I would have said that I oppose his policies. If anyone had dug further, much of my opposition was that I did not trust him to make the right decisions. I am certain that he would make them based on ego, power and arrogance (you’re either with us or against us!).

    With Barack, I believe he is a superbly intelligent and decent human being. I think that his value system is closely congruent with mine. I also know that he has much, much more information than I do. Bottom line is that I trust that, when he says it is necessary to do something ugly, he has studied hard, thought carefully and come to the conclusion that there is no better alternative for our country. I believe that it is very likely that he will have made the right decision.

    1. TQ, you have to factor in the many levels between Obama and the guys at street level. Things are done (e.g. Fast & Furious) that don’t come to his attention and scrutiny. Things are planned (e.g., Bay of Pigs invasion) that are justified by people with an axe to grind, with limited counter-information flowing upwards. So you may trust his judgment in general, but his decisions have to be scrutinize as well, all the while recognizing that a good decision (e.g., Solyndra) does necessarily result in a good outcome.

    2. You’re a partisan. Let’s not dismiss the Bush Administration, since these decisions are not made in a vacuum, as uninformed, unintelligent bullies. These are some smart people. Even entertaining the notion that Obama is smarter and more humane than Bush, we still have to acknowledge that he is doing the exact same things that Bush did. To just throw our trust behind him and not prod for at least a little transparency and accountability is dangerous.

      Now, let’s also entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that not all the Obama Administration’s decisions are genial. Was sending a SEAL team into Pakistan to kill Bin Ladin smart? Superficially it sure looks like it worked out, and I’m not suggesting it didn’t. But why didn’t we hear anything from the Administration about how much they weighed the risk of pissing off a nuclear power that has sometimes questionable control over what goes on within its borders (the Khan network, the recently-classified-as-terrorist Haqqani militia, Bin Ladin hanging out in their backyard, poor representation of certain provinces in the country, etc.). There’s more going on here than just “targeted killings.”




  3. It’s our love affair with Obama. If Bush does it: bad, evil. If Obama does it: necessary, valient. This piece from the Atlantic deserves a read from every rhetorically Liberal Democrat.


    The journalism here might get a yellowy hue in a few sentences, but the writer’s main point is crucial: the way the media frames the war on terror has undergone a major transformation. The strategies now are very much the same as they were under Bush, but all of a sudden the public supports the Administration in charge. Does the media have nothing to do with this? They’ve manufactured our consent because they like this guy more.

    I am dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, disgusted with where the Republican machine has gone, and will be hoping that enough people support someone else so that we Americans can alert the system that we want to go in a different direction.

    1. You don’t need to go to “the media favors the Democrats!” to reach this conclusion. I think that, under Bush, Republicans tended to support torture and Democrats at least sometimes didn’t. Now Democrats have changed their opinions to conform with what Obama does, while most Republicans remain pro-torture.

      1. I acknowledge the validity of your point. Some (or many) Democrats have followed their guy and changed their opinion of Bush-era war on terror policies since Obama continues them. But you used to hear a lot of fuss in the media about those policies; now you don’t, or at leat you hear a lot less. The result is that all the people in this country who pay very little attention to these things (the vast majority) end up thinking that this Administration is all pious in comparison to Bush’s when in reality, in terms of war on terror policies at least, it’s just as hawkish and unconstitutional, or arguably even worse.

        Let’s return to the main point though. We need a change of course and wanted one. We were told we would get it from Obama. We didn’t. For some reason we stopped demanding a change of course. Let’s get back to that. Let’s find a way to tell our institutions that we demand something better.

        1. agreed- the war on terror is Obama’s least attractive feature, the one that puts a lot of the rest of his apparent virtues in doubt. But it would still be a *lot* better if he were elected in November than Romney, for a number of reasons, and Romney would be at least as bad, probably disastrously worse, on foreign policy. So staying away from the polls or voting for an alluring third party candidate would be a very bad choice.

          1. how exactly would “voting for an alluring third-party candidate be a very bad choice?” I don’t appreciate the dismissiveness of that assertion. Assuming enough people do vote for a third-party candidate to disrupt the status quo: maybe there’s a shock to the system in the short-run, but I’d venture to say the long-run system would play out much more favorably. I’ve got 50-70 more years of life to live in this country (God-willing), and would happily trade a decade or two of healthy tumult for future stability and prosperity. Sadly, all the middle-agers that put us in this mess want to maximize their comfort-level for the rest of their lives and deceive themselves that America in the middle of this century will be the same as it is today. Thanks a lot for the short-sighted policy. Enjoy my payments into Social Security.

        2. Conor Friedersdorf is a pretty good writer, all right. However, many of us have seen “To Hell With Them Both” before and didn’t like the way it turned out.

          The original 1968 production, starring Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, with George Wallace in a supporting role (with Eldridge Cleaver as a minor role), was a pretty good spellbinder, where the TV announcer said on the day after the election, “Well, it is this time tomorrow, and we still don’t know.” But the result was clear by mid-morning, and the secret bombings of Laos in later years, not to mention all the liberties taken with the Constitution, made for a pretty lousy plot.

          The remake in 2000, titled “Not A Dime’s Worth Of Difference,” starring George W. Bush and Al Gore, with Ralph Nader in the supporting role, was much more exciting, with all the drama of that long Florida recount, but the rest of the movie was mighty crappy, and made me not want to see this film again.

          So we are invited to the 2012 remake, starring Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, with Gary Johnson in a supporting role. In normal times, or in a non-battleground state, it would make sense to vote for Johnson for the reasons given in the Atlantic article. But I really do not care to wake up the day after the election with NPR saying, “All eyes are on the Colorado recount, where lawyers from both campaigns are descending upon Denver.” If Conor Friedersdorf lives in a state where the outcome is not in doubt, I am glad he is voting for Johnson, and applaud him for the reasons he gives. I just think that the newest remake of this old movie is not likely to be any better than its predecessors.

          1. The point is not to vote for a third-partier. The point is to stop just accepting that an Administration knows best because it is composed of individuals from a party we identify with. I’m sick of the celebrity that is Obama and wish his adherents were a little more critical of his questionable policies instead of just being happy that he isn’t Republican.

          2. Ditto. I do think we have a big problem with creeping fascism in the US, but still — let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot, too.

  4. This is an important issue, but I can’t commit to reading that long of a piece about a poll unless I am told up-front what the exact questions were, and how they found people to answer them.

    I think many polls are b.s. and I can’t get excited about them.

  5. I think this issue is much bigger than who is president. The problem is, from the left at least, we have either a hole in our Constitution, or it is being violated without consequences. I tend to think it is being violated with impunity, which is perhaps slightly preferable — in the sense of being easier to fix? — than the former. Which is not to say that I *know* how to fix it.

    I suppose to many right wingy types, there is no problem at all, the Atlantic guy aside?

    And what the majority of voters thinks or doesn’t think shouldn’t much matter. Some things are not supposed to be up for a vote anyway.

    1. They are not *supposed* to be up for a vote because they are enshrined in the Constitution. The fact that we are at a point where we have to tell our leaders–by voting them out of office–that they can’t do certain things because they are unconstitutional is precisely why things are so ominous right now. They *are* up for vote, and we as a people are failing to hold our leaders accountable because (1) the majority of voters don’t pay attention and (2) the majority of those that do pay attention are partisan followers before objective Constitution-protecters.

    2. Well, I don’t agree. The branch of government that ought to be taking care of this, and isn’t, is our judicial branch. That is the main source of our problem, imho. Our judges are not doing their jobs. Now, how to fix *that?* Anyone got ideas?

      I mean, conceivably, you could see some sort of Congressional hearings, but Congress now is so very bleeped that I can’t see it happening in any helpful way. (I think it could be like McCarthy — you just need someone to ask the right challenging questions.)

      No, my guess is, we’ll bumble along and this problem won’t get fixed for years. Maybe there will be some kind of huge scandal that comes out and wakes people up.

      A general election can’t possibly send a clear message on the Constitution. And if voters are the only ones left to enforce the law, we are in deep doodoo.

      And voting against Obama for this reason would just be delusional.

  6. There’s also the matter of inertia. We had 6 years of Very Important Serious People telling us that torture and semi-targeted murder were crucial to the defense of our country (with a fair amount of pushback). Since Obama’s inauguration we’ve had relatively little national dialog on the issue, except for the part where the GOP made sure no one from Guantanamo could be tried in a US court. So it’s like the carryover heat that finishes cooking a goose.

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