PRINCETON, NJ -- Earlier this week, Sen. Patrick Leahy called for a special commission to investigate possible government wrongdoing by the Bush administration in its anti-terror policies, as well as possible attempts to politicize the Justice Department through the firing of U.S. attorneys who were viewed as potentially disloyal to the administration. While Americans appear to support some kind of investigation into these matters, no more than 41% favor criminal probes.
These results are based on a Jan. 30-Feb. 1 USA Today/Gallup poll. In addition to Leahy's recent call for a "truth commission" that would investigate but not prosecute Bush administration officials, a House committee led by Rep. John Conyers is awaiting responses to subpoenas of former Bush administration officials regarding Bush-era policies and actions.
For each of three controversial actions or policies of the Bush administration, survey respondents were asked whether there should be a criminal investigation by the Justice Department or an investigation by an independent panel that would issue a report of findings but not seek any criminal charges, or whether neither should be done.
While no more than 41% of Americans favor a criminal investigation into any of the matters, at least 6 in 10 say there should be either a criminal investigation or an independent probe into all three. This includes 62% who favor some type of investigation into the possible use of torture when interrogating terrorism suspects, 63% who do so with respect to the possible use of telephone wiretaps without obtaining a warrant, and 71% who support investigating possible attempts to use the Justice Department for political purposes.
So far, President Obama has been reluctant to pursue such investigations, but Leahy and Conyers in particular are calling for an accounting of what happened on Bush's watch.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, a majority of Democratic identifiers favor a criminal probe into all three matters -- including 54% who do so with respect to warrantless wiretaps, 51% for the possible use of torture, and 52% for the firing of U.S. attorneys.
In contrast, Republicans are most likely to oppose any type of investigation, including a majority who say so in regard to the possible use of torture (54%) and warrantless wiretaps (56%). Republicans are more receptive to an investigation into possible efforts to politicize the Justice Department, with 24% favoring a criminal probe and 28% in favor of an independent panel report. Still, the greatest number (43%) of Republicans think there should be no investigation into the Justice Department matter.
Independents' views on all three matters fall in between those of Republicans and Democrats, with a majority favoring some type of investigation but (unlike Democrats) not a criminal probe.
At this point, it is unclear whether investigations into possible Bush-era wrongdoing will in fact take place. Though Congress has the power to conduct investigations on its own, it may follow Obama's stated intention of concentrating House and Senate efforts on attempting to improve the economy and rescue troubled financial institutions over backward-looking probes into whether Bush administration officials violated the law or otherwise acted unethically in certain situations.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,027 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.