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If the Bush Administration listens to the American public, rather than to Sen. John McCain, it needn't be too worried about the issue of torture of suspected terrorists.

Results of two recent polls by major public opinion organizations show that a substantial majority of Americans believes that such treatment is justified, that torture is still being carried out, and that soldiers, rather than official policy, are responsible.

A poll by the Pew Research Center found that of the 2,006 people it surveyed from the general public, 46 percent believe that torturing terror suspects to gain important information is sometimes (31 percent) or often (15 percent) justified while 17 percent thought it is rarely justified and 32 percent were opposed.

And a survey of 1,010 Americans by Harris Interactive finds that by a 66 to 32 percent majority the American public believes that torture of prisoners by Americans has taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. McCain, an Arizona Republican and Vietnam-era prisoner of war, has introduced legislation that would ban cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners by the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and private contractors.

McCain has been locked in a struggle over the measure with the Bush Administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who has demanded an exemption for the CIA.

But the Senate vote approving the measure was passed 90-9 on a bipartisan basis, despite the administration's threat to veto it. However, a veto would be difficult for the President, since the McCain measure is attached to a "must-pass" defense department spending bill that provides funding for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill is likely to come to a Senate vote soon after members return from their Thanksgiving break next week.

The Harris poll found that 61 percent of those who believe that torture has taken place (or 41 percent of all U.S. adults) also believe that it is still happening in spite of the public disclosures of events that took place in Abu Ghraib prison.

Harris reported that among the 66 percent of adults who believe that prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured, a 41 percent plurality feels that those in command are most responsible followed by the soldiers (30%), the Administration (13%) and the Pentagon (10%).

But the Pew survey also found a pronounced divide between attitudes of the general public and those of more influential Americans. Of the 520 opinion leaders -- academics, news media leaders, military and foreign-affairs experts, religious leaders and scientists - polled on the same issue, no more than one in four believes that torture of terrorist suspects can be sometimes or often justified.

Pew reported that strong opposition to torture is particularly pronounced among security experts, religious leaders and academics, majorities of whom say the use of torture to gain important information is never justified. Nearly half (48%) of scientists and engineers also take this position, as do military leaders (49%), the Pew survey found.

But while opinion leaders largely agree in opposing the use of torture, their views widely differ as to who should be held responsible for prisoner abuse in Iraq and alleged prisoner abuse in the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

By more than three-to-one (75%-21%) scientists and engineers say that these abuses were mostly the result of official policies. A majority of security (57%) and foreign affairs experts (58%) agree, along with about half of academics (53%) and news media leaders (53%). But most military (60%) and religious (67%) leaders believe cases of prisoner mistreatment were mostly the result of misconduct on the part of soldiers and contractors.

"The general public is divided over this question - 48 percent believe soldiers and contractors are to blame, while 36 percent blame official policies," the report said.

Pew added, "The American public is far more open than opinion leaders to the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information. Nearly half of the public (46%) says this can be either often (15%) or sometimes (31%) be justified. This is consistent with results of Pew surveys since July 2004."

The Harris poll found that by a 66 to 32 percent majority the American public believes that torture of prisoners by Americans has taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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WILLIAM FISHER Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)
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