PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are evenly divided on the advisability of negotiating with terrorist groups to secure the release of American prisoners. Forty-three percent say it is more important for the U.S. to secure the safe release of prisoners, even if that means compromising with terrorist demands, while 44% say it is more important to discourage future prisoner-taking by refusing to negotiate with terrorist groups, even if that means risking the lives of the U.S. prisoners.
The results are based on a June 5-8 poll conducted in the first few days after the Taliban released U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whom they had held captive in Afghanistan for five years. Although the Taliban is not a terrorist group per se, it has long harbored terrorists in Afghanistan, including 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. In exchange for Bergdahl, the U.S. released five Taliban detainees it was holding at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Gallup asked a similar question in 1985 after terrorists in Lebanon took more than 30 Americans hostage during the hijacking of a TWA airliner. At the time, Americans were also largely divided over the trade-offs inherent in negotiating with terror groups for hostage release.
Democrats and Republicans currently have clear views of which considerations are more important when Americans are held captive. Republicans by a better than two-to-one margin believe the U.S. should not negotiate with terrorist groups, whereas by nearly the same margin Democrats believe securing the safe release of U.S. prisoners is more important.
In 1985, Republicans and Democrats did not show as much consensus in their views as they do now. Back then, Democrats saw the safe release of hostages as the higher priority, by 53% to 37%. Republicans said discouraging future hostage taking was more important, by 48% to 40%.
Americans' Attention to Bergdahl Case Above Historical Norms for News Stories
Thirty-one percent of Americans say they are following the news about the Bergdahl release "very closely," and an additional 34% say they are following it "somewhat closely." The combined 65% following the story closely is slightly higher than the 60% average Gallup has measured for more than 200 news events since 1991.
Americans who are most engaged in the Bergdahl story -- those following it "very closely" -- come firmly down on the side of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. This relationship is partly because more Republicans (39%) than Democrats (27%) are following the story very closely.
Those who are not following the story closely see the safe release of prisoners as the more important objective.
Americans Critical of Bergdahl, as Well as Obama's Handling of the Situation
The Bergdahl release has been controversial not just because of the terms of his release, but also for the circumstances surrounding his capture, including allegations he was captured after deserting his post. A majority of Americans, 51%, do not have an opinion of Bergdahl, however those who do are decidedly more negative than positive toward him. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say they have an unfavorable opinion of Bergdahl, while 13% have a favorable one.
Those following the news about Bergdahl's release "very closely" are much more likely to have an opinion of him, and it is overwhelmingly negative, with a 65% unfavorable and 15% favorable rating among this group.
Americans' opinions about how President Barack Obama has handled the situation are also negative, with 38% approving and 50% disapproving. Among those following the story very closely, 28% approve and 69% disapprove.
The Bergdahl situation has proved to be highly controversial and Obama continues to be questioned about his decision to exchange prisoners with the Taliban. The president has emphasized the United States' desire to bring home all of its captive soldiers as a rationale for his decision.
Americans' divided opinion on the proper course of action in these matters underscores the complexity of the situation. Obama's ultimate choice in the matter was more in line with the view of his political base, given Democrats' belief that securing the safe release of Americans is more important than the potential risks involved in meeting terrorist demands. The fact that Republicans take an opposing view on how to handle such a situation is one reason Bergdahl's release has not been universally hailed. Republican congressional leaders have already called for hearings to look into the matter, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before a House Committee on Wednesday.
Importantly for the president, despite the criticism he has received over Bergdahl and Americans' disapproval of his handling the situation, his overall job approval rating has held steady as the controversy has evolved.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 5-8, 2014, with a random sample of 1,027 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.