US Public Found to Reject Detainee Torture and Coercion
new reports of abuses by U.S. soldiers of Iraqi and other detainees,
a major survey of US public attitudes shows strong opposition to
torture and many of the other more-coercive methods that were authorized
under some circumstances by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and used
against prisoners held by US forces.
survey, conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International
Policy Attitudes (PIPA), found that 66 percent of the US believe
that "governments should never use physical torture" and
that 60 percent believe that all captured individuals should have
the right to appeal their status to a neutral judge, even if they
are not conventional soldiers as defined by the Geneva Conventions.
percent of respondents said a soldier should have the right to refuse
to follow an order if he or she believes that it was a violation
of international law.
also found that supporters of President George W. Bush were more
likely to support harsher treatment of detainees than independents
or respondents who said they intended to vote for Sen. John Kerry
in the November elections. Forty-four percent of the 892 randomly
chosen adults said they intended to vote for Kerry; 40 percent for
Bush, four percent for independent candidate Ralph Nader, while
the rest gave no answer or were undecided.
poll results, which also suggested that the public is more willing
to consider psychological techniques, such as sleep deprivation
and hooding, than physical abuse or torture in trying to extract
information from detainees, nonetheless showed strong rejection
of methods that were designed to provoke fear or humiliation. Nine
out of ten respondents, for example, said they would oppose sexually
humiliating detainees as depicted in the notorious photos taken
at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last October under
even the most urgent circumstances.
the public supports the system of international laws restricting
torture and coercion, though it would consider making some limited
exceptions on the edges if there was high confidence that a catastrophic
outcome would be prevented," said Steven Kull, PIPA's executive
survey results were released just as the US Army Inspector General
(IG), Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, told a Senate hearing that his office
had documented a total of 94 cases of confirmed or alleged abuse,
of which eight were related to prisoner interrogations, by the US
military in Iraq and Afghanistan since the fall of 2001. It was
by far the highest Pentagon figure to date of alleged abuse cases.
Mikolashek, whose five-month investigation is just one of 11 on
alleged abuses being carried out by the Pentagon, also reported
that the United States has held more than 50,000 prisoners in the
two countries during that time.
report, which said the cases included theft, physical assault, sexual
assault and death, insisted that "the abuses that have occurred
are not representative of policy, doctrine or soldier training."
But it also quoted a report by the International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) from last February that asserted that abuses were
"used in a systematic way" by the military in Iraq.
IG's report is the most powerful evidence yet of the breadth of
the problems in US detention and interrogation in the 'war on terrorism,'"
said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the US Law and Security Program
at Human Rights First (HRF), formerly known as the Lawyers Committee
for Human Rights. "Ninety-four documented cases of abuse is
not an isolated problem it's bad policy that needs to be
fixed in a comprehensive way," she added, reiterating recent
calls by HRF and other international human rights groups for a comprehensive
investigation of abuses conducted by an independent commission or
court of inquiry.
PIPA survey, by far the most comprehensive on the subject of detainee
abuse and attitudes toward torture since the "war on terror"
was launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and
the Pentagon, was conducted July 915 and had a margin of error
of plus or minus 3.3 percent.
nine in ten respondents said they favored complying with international
law regarding the treatment of prisoners as a general principle:
92 percent said they believed the names of all detainees must be
registered and given access to the ICRC; 81 percent said detainees
should have the right to a hearing before an independent judge to
challenge the government's right to hold him; 77 percent said they
should have the right to contact their families.
about whether unconventional fighters, and specifically alleged
members of al Qaeda, should be accorded the same rights, 60 percent
agreed while 37 percent disagreed. A majority of 53 percent of self-identified
Republicans, however, said they disagreed.
respondents were told that the Supreme Court had recently overruled
the Bush administration's contention that it was not required to
give detainees an independent hearing, 68 percent said they agreed
with the Court.
about a range of interrogation techniques approved by Rumsfeld,
nearly two thirds of respondents including a slight majority
of Kerry supporters said they favored using sleep deprivation
in a situation where there is a strong chance that the detainee
has information about a possible terrorist attack on the US that
may prove critical to thwarting it, 56 percent said they would favor
keeping a hood over the detainee's head of bombarding him with loud
noise for long periods of time to obtain the information. A slight
majority of 52 percent said they favored using "stress"
positions for an extended period under those circumstances.
majorities ranging 54 percent (withholding food and water) and 58
percent (using threatening dogs to frighten detainees) to 81 percent
(beating, submersing, or electric shock) to 89 percent (sexual humiliation)
opposed such techniques even in the most urgent circumstances. Seventy-five
percent of respondents said forcing detainees to go naked a practice
that, according to a variety of reports, was relatively common
could not be justified under any circumstances.
survey found that those respondents who supported such techniques
were significantly more likely to support Bush and identify themselves
as Republicans than Kerry supporters or self-described Democrats
how Bush's handling of the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo
Bay will affect their vote, 37 percent said it would make them less
likely to vote for him, while 22 percent said more likely a net
negative of 15 percent. The rest offered no opinion.
respondents, however, were unaware that Rumsfeld had approved some
of these interrogation techniques; specifically, only 35 percent
were aware that he had approved of making detainees go naked, and
45 percent said they knew he had approved of using threatening dogs.
Of those who were aware of his approval of such methods, 59 percent
said they were less likely to vote for Bush, while nine percent
said it made it more likely they would vote for him.
Ornstein, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute
(AEI), said he thought the political impact of the prisoner-abuse
scandal would be directed less at voter attitudes toward Bush than
toward the situation in Iraq, particularly because it has undermined
the moral justification for the occupation. "Since Abu Ghraib,
we've seen a steadily deteriorating percent of Americans who believe
we did the right thing in going into Iraq," he said, noting
that Bush is more likely to be hurt by the voters' disillusionment
than by the perception that he was responsible for the abuses.
also suggested that the beliefs expressed in the survey could also
change with events. "If this survey (were taken) one or two
months after 9/11, you might have gotten a very difficult result,"
he said, adding that the attitudes could also change if another
terrorist attack takes place.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service