Just over half of Americans say they believe the interrogation methods the CIA used against terrorism suspects in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, polling data released Monday showed.
About 30% said they believed the tactics were unjustified, and the remaining 20% said they did not know, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center.
Opinion on the CIA's torture of its prisoners differs notably by partisanship. Democrats were split, the poll found, with liberals much more likely to say that the CIA's tactics were not justified. Republicans across the board said the interrogations were justified.
President Obama banned the CIA's use of methods such as waterboarding, extended sleep deprivation and beatings, which had been authorized under President George W. Bush. Obama and other Democratic elected officials have referred to the CIA's actions as "torture."
Most Republican elected officials have defended the CIA's actions, with the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and has denounced what the CIA did as a violation of American values.
By 56% to 28%, those polled said they believed the CIA's tactics had produced intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insists that was not the case, and the committee report on the CIA's actions that was released last week goes to great lengths to support her assertion.
On that question too, a sharp partisan gap exists, with Republicans by 73% to 15% saying they believed that the interrogations helped prevent attacks, and Democrats split almost evenly, with 43% saying they did produce intelligence that helped prevent attacks and 40% saying they did not.
The poll was taken Thursday through Sunday after the release of the report, which sharply criticized the CIA's actions. According to the poll, Americans were evenly divided over whether the intelligence panel was right to release its report, with 42% saying it was and 43% saying no.
On the question of whether the CIA's acts were justified, 76% of people who identified themselves as Republicans said yes, and only 12% said no. Self-identified Democrats split, with 37% saying the interrogation tactics were justified and 46% saying they were not. Among liberal Democrats, 65% said the CIA's actions were not justified, but among moderate and conservative Democrats, only 32% said so. A plurality of independents, 49%, sided with the CIA, and 30% said the agency's actions were not justified.
Americans younger than 50 were less likely to side with the CIA than older Americans. Just over 40% of Americans younger than 50 called the CIA's methods justified, but 60% of those 50 and older did so.
The age gap may account for another divide the poll found: Those who said they closely followed the news about the release of the Senate report, about one-quarter of the population, sided with the CIA, 59% to 34%. Among those who did not pay such close attention, the ratio was 49% to 27%. The population of people who closely follow news tends to skew older.
Whites were somewhat more likely than blacks or Latinos to call the tactics justified, with 57% of whites siding with the CIA, compared with 42% of blacks and 43% of Latinos. Similarly, men (57%) were more likely to say the CIA's actions were justified than were women (46%).
The Pew poll surveyed 1,001 Americans ages 18 and older. The margin of error is
3.6 percentage points in either direction.
Separately, a CBS poll, also released Monday, found that 69% of Americans believe waterboarding to be a form of torture, but 49% say such tactics are sometimes justified; 36% say they are not.
As in the Pew poll, the CBS survey found a notable partisan divide, with 73% of Republicans saying that such tactic are sometimes justified, but a majority of Democrats, 54%, saying they never are.
Just over half of Americans, 52%, in the CBS survey said they thought release of the Senate committee report posed a threat to U.S. security, with 64% of Republicans taking that position.
Most Americans believe that the CIA was not telling the full truth about its interrogation program, with 44% saying the CIA was hiding some things, 17% saying the agency was mostly lying and 18% saying they believe the CIA told the whole truth.
The CBS poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday, surveyed 1,003 Americans ages 18 and older. The margin of error is 3 percentage points in either direction.