A surprising number of Americans are supportive of controversial Bush-era tactics used to undermine terrorism, and are even open to more extreme measures like using nuclear weapons.
That's what professor Amy Zegart discovered when she asked the research firm YouGov to poll 1,000 people in August. Zegart recently joined Stanford University's Hoover Institution after leaving UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, where she specialized in national security and intelligence.
The poll results showed that an increasing number of Americans supported torturing prisoners, up 14 points to 41 percent since 2007. The wording of questions can deeply influence how people answer a poll, so Zegart used the same questions from research done on interrogation techniques in 2005, before Barack Obama was elected president.
“It turns out that Americans don’t just like the general idea of torture more now,” Zegart wrote for Foreign Policy on Sept. 25. “They like specific torture techniques more too.”
Numerous news organizations have used YouGov for polling purposes, including the UK's Sunday Times, The Economist and BBC News.
Zegart also discovered that 25 percent of Americans would be willing to use a several-hundred-kiloton atomic bomb in order to stop the next terrorist plot. Overall, she believes, the poll numbers suggest Americans have become tougher on counterterrorism policy since Obama took control of the White House.
So what explains this phenomenon? In an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Zegart said it was popular culture – particularly spy-themed television shows and films – that seemed in part to influence the degree to which Americans supported techniques of varying severity, such as torture. After all, some Twitter users thanked the fictional character Jack Bauer from Fox’s “24” after Osama bin Laden was killed.
Zegart additionally points to research from the Parents Television Council showing that before Sept, 11, 2001, it was “bad guys” who unflinchingly used cruel torture techniques, while American hero-characters crusaded against such practices. That dynamic changed after the hijackings, Zegart explained.
“What I’ve been hearing from people inside the intelligence community is that these shows and movies have absolutely generated increasing interest in people wanting to work for intelligence agencies,” she said.
The work of intelligence officials often appears in media accounts as action-fueled, from targeted killings by drones to torture techniques to the clandestine use of informants. Overlooked is the less-glamorous side of intelligence made up of thousands of desk-bound analysts responsible for accurately informing the president about countries like North Korea and Iran.
“One of the interesting things I found that I did not write about yet is how confidence in the CIA has improved dramatically over the last several years,” Zegart said. “ … I think what’s going on there is that drone warfare is spilling over into Americans’ perception of how good the CIA actually is at analysis. We’re very good at killing people now with drones, but that doesn’t mean the CIA is very good at gathering and analyzing intelligence about North Korea any more today than we were seven years ago.”
Zegart is the author of three books on national security and intelligence, including last year’s “Eyes on Spies: Congress and the United States Intelligence Community,” which chronicled the failure of lawmakers to adequately oversee intelligence agencies. Good monitoring from Congress, she wrote in the book, ensures that highly secretive federal bureaucracies comply with the law and maintain the public’s trust.