Splitting Hairs On The Popularity Of Prosecutions

Resurgent Republic, the GOP polling/research/strategy firm created in the mold of the left's Democracy Corps, sent out a memo to press this afternoon claiming independents will stand squarely against Attorney General Eric Holder's consideration of prosecuting some intelligence officials who overstepped the bounds of Bush-era legal guidelines for interrogations. Resurgent Republic has found, via its own polling, that 66 percent vs. 29 percent of independents sided against prosecuting the authors of the Bush-era legal memos because "[t]hat investigation would divide the country, turn policy disagreements into criminal charges, and have a chilling effect on future efforts to keep America safe. We should thank the people who kept us safe, not prosecute them," when also presented with an argument that prosecuting the Yoos and Bybees of the Bush administration is necessary for accountability.

They make the same conclusion about Holder's decision:

While the question regarding criminal investigation centered on lawyers at the Department of Justice, it's unlikely that a question centered on officers at the Central Intelligence Agency would have resulted in more respondents agreeing that there should be a criminal investigation (if you assume most Americans would be more sympathetic to CIA agents than DOJ lawyers).

But there's a big distinction here: Holder's prosecutions, if they happen, won't be about policy at all--they'll be about a small handful of individuals who actually violated the policy. In theory, even John Yoo should support these prosecutions--the interrogators in question violated what he said was legal.

In going after those who went even further than what the Bush administration said was permissible, Holder actually sets those policies as a kind of legal threshold as he determines what should, and should not, be subject to prosecution.

As Marc has noted, these investigations will go way too far for the conservatives who say prosecutions hurt out security, and they won't go nearly far enough for the liberals and civil libertarians who want the highest officials of the Bush administration--even President Bush and Vice President Cheney themselves--prosecuted as war criminals.

But there may be a swath of independents for whom this is just right...independents who didn't like the policies, but who also aren't comfortable with a new administration's Justice Department prosecuting the old administration's lawyers for their legal opinions.

Where independents are concerned, it may be faulty to assume that qualms about full-on prosecution of Bush officials translate into qualms about prosecuting a handful of interrogators who went further than even those officials were willing to go.

In sum, the jury's probably still out on how this issue and its nuances will play with different kinds of voters, and I'd be skeptical about claims to the contrary.