Poll: Doubts On Military Tribunals

CBS News/New York Times poll graphic
CBS/AP
The latest CBS News/New York Times poll finds Americans are skeptical about the president's plan to try alleged terrorists in military courts. Overall, support for President Bush and the war effort remains strong.

Three months after terrorists attacked the United States, most Americans admit that their lives changed because of the events of September 11. But handling the faltering economy has become as important to the public as responding to terrorism and protecting national security. And the public holds conflicting views on the Justice Department's new approach to pursuing terrorists.

CIVIL LIBERTIES DURING WARTIME

Over the past few weeks, the Justice Department has proposed or enacted new rules for the way in which government agencies seek, investigate and prosecute suspected criminals in order to combat terrorism. The public embraces some of the changes and rejects others - with much depending on the extent to which the changes are perceived as affecting average American's lives.

The high job approval ratings that the president continues to enjoy have carried over into public perceptions of the changes he and his administration have proposed. And as long as his proposals are seen as limited to those suspected of terrorism, many are willing to accept them.

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S PROPOSALS

This is a complex issue, and the Bush administration has proposed many changes. As a result, even though many Americans are paying attention to the proposed changes, public reaction is not yet well formed. When asked their overall reaction to the administration's proposals, 12 percent think the changes go too far, 9 percent think they don't go far enough, and 29 percent think they are about right. But nearly half say they don't know enough yet to say.

One of the reasons few people feel the changes go too far is the belief that the changes won't affect them. Just over one in three think some of these changes may apply to people like themselves, but most people – 62 percent -- are not worried the changes will affect them.

Although they are not specifically singled out by any of the administration's proposals, African-Americans are especially concerned that these changes may affect them: 63 percent are very or somewhat worried the changes could apply to people like them, and 36 percent are not worried.

Democrats are also more concerned about this than Republicans. Fifty percent of Democrats are worried the changes may affect people like them, compared to 25 percent of Republicans.

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WHICH CONCERNS YOU MORE?
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 Government will not enact strong anti-terrorism meaures?Government will enact laws that restrict civil rights?

43%

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But concern about restricting civil rights is tempered by concern that the government won't go far enough in its efforts to defeat terrorism. Forty-three percent are more concerned that the government won't enact strong anti-terrorism measures, while about the same percentage are worried the government will trample civil rights in its efforts to stop terrorists.

Among African-Americans, opinion is better defined: 63 percent are concerned the government will enact laws that restrict rights, while 28 percent are concerned that government measures won't be tough enough. Education and age also affect these views. People with more education are more concerned about enacting strict anti-terrorism measures, and those aged 18-29 are more worried about civil rights.

Finally, there are differences by party affiliation and political philosophy. 52 percent of Republicans are more concerned the government won't enact strict measures, but Democrats take the opposite view – 53 percent are more concerned about restrictions on civil rights. Liberals are also more concerned about preserving civil rights than enacting tough anti-terrorism measures, by 57 percent to 30 percent.

TRYING TERRORISTS

The Bush administration has proposed trying suspected foreign terrorists in a military tribunal rathr than in a criminal court. The administration believes that trying terrorists in criminal court could compromise national security because U.S. intelligence might need to be made public, and that these trials could endanger jurors. In a military trial, there does not need to be a unanimous verdict, there are no disclosure requirements, the judge is a member of the military, and the courtroom proceedings may be kept secret.

While more than eight in ten Americans think a criminal courtroom is the right place for murder suspects to be tried, they are less sure that this venue is appropriate for suspected terrorists. Just over half think a criminal court (which requires a jury, a unanimous verdict, and a civilian judge) is the right place for terrorists to be tried.

But many are skeptical about military trials for alleged terrorists. Only 40 percent think a military trial is the right way to deal with suspected terrorists, and in fact 51 percent think this is not the right way to deal with such suspects.

Given a choice between a criminal and military trial, the public would rather see terrorist suspects tried in criminal court: 50 percent express this preference, and 40 percent prefer a military court.

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PREFER FOR TERRORIST SUSPECTS

 Criminal courtMilitary court

50%

40%

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Those under age 30 and less-educated Americans express stronger support for trying such suspects in criminal court, as do African-Americans. And while Democrats prefer a criminal trial over a military trial by more than two to one, Republicans would like to see terrorists tried in military court.

Americans have always objected to secret trials. In 1970, the CBS News/New York Timespoll asked Americans whether they thought the government ever had the right to hold secret trials. As was the case more than 30 years ago, the public clearly opposes secret trials; 65 percent say the government should not have this right. In 1970, 75 percent expressed this view. However, public support for secret trials has risen slightly in the intervening years; 28 percent support them now, up from 20 percent in 1970.

OTHER ANTI-TERRORISM MEASURES

The Bush administration has proposed a number of other measures as part of the effort to fight terrorism, some of which are met with widespread public support and some of which are not.

The public solidly favors allowing the government to detain either citizens or non-citizens for up to seven days or even indefinitely without charging them with a crime, if the person is thought to be a threat to national security. Nearly four in five Americans favor that.

A similar number supports suspending the attorney/client privilege for suspected terrorists and allowing the government to listen in on their conversations.

Sixty-one percent think it is a good idea to interview 5,000 young Middle Eastern men who are legal residents of the United States, based on their age and the country they come from; 52 percent think that does not violate their civil rights.

But, only 39 percent think it is a good idea to offer people from other countries a three-year visa and help obtaining U.S. citizenship in exchange for information about terrorists.

Just over half also believe that allowing the government to routinely question Middle Eastern men who have come to the United States within the past two years, even if they are not suspected of any crime, violates people's rights; 42 percent think it should be allowed.

Over three-quarters feel that U.S. citizens and those who are not citizens but who are in the country legally should be treated the same way under the law.

There is less public support for preventive detention in general. About half now think the police should be able to detain a person suspected of committing a serious crime in jail until they get enough evidence to officially charge him, and 42 percent think the police should not do that. And while current opinion on this issue is divided, in a CBS News/New York Times pll conducted in 1970 a majority supported it. Then, 58 percent thought this was acceptable and 38 percent thought it was not.

On many of these measures, blacks are more apt than whites to believe the changes violate people's rights or are a bad idea. People age 18 to 29 also tend to disagree with these measures.

As long as the changes are targeted toward terrorists, Americans tend to support them. However, once the measures could touch their own lives, Americans become resistant to interference with their civil liberties, even in the name of fighting terrorism. Only 30 percent think it is a good idea to suspend the attorney/client privilege for all suspected criminals; 64 percent think that is a bad idea.

Similarly, there is strong opposition to government surveillance of religious groups. Few think that the government should be allowed to investigate religious groups that gather at mosques, churches or synagogues without evidence that someone in the group has broken the law. Three out of four Americans believe that violates people's rights.

And by more than two to one, the public is now not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mail of ordinary Americans on a regular basis in order to fight terrorism.

There is also mixed support for allowing the government to have more authority to use wiretaps to fight terrorism. Forty-eight percent now think the government should do this, while 44 percent think this violates people's constitutional rights. Five years ago (and one year after the Oklahoma City bombing), four in five were willing for the government to do this.

THE ADMINISTRATION'S ROLE

By a large margin, the public believes that in general the president should not have sole discretion in acting on these issues. Only 12 percent think the president should make changes to the way government agencies seek, investigate and prosecute suspected criminals by executive order alone, and 82 percent believe these changes should be made through Congressional legislation with presidential approval.

That said, most Americans understand the need for a wartime president to assume extraordinary powers that in other circumstances might not be acceptable, and are willing to give that power to the currently-popular incumbent. Sixty-four percent think that in the current campaign against terrorism, it is a good idea for the president to have the authority to make changes in the rights usually guaranteed by the Constitution.

The exceptionally high approval ratings Mr. Bush receives (his overall job approval rating is 86 percent in this poll) are undoubtedly a reason for people's willingness to let the president make these decisions now.

African-Americans are more reluctant to think this war on terrorism warrants allowing the president to have the authority to make changes in civil rights; 46 percent think that is a bad idea.

Probably because they expect the war on terrorism to las a long time, nearly half of Americans believe changes made to Constitutional rights now should be kept in place for an indefinite period of time.

VIEWS OF CIVIL LIBERTIES IN GENERAL

Views on civil liberties have most certainly been affected by the recent Bush administration proposals. Now, two-thirds are very or somewhat concerned about losing some of their civil liberties, with 33 percent very concerned. In a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times in September, only 20 percent felt that way.

Blacks are twice as likely as whites to worry about losing their rights. Fifty-six percent of African Americans are very concerned about losing some of their civil liberties, compared to 28 percent of whites. Younger people are also more concerned about this issue than older Americans are, as are those with less education.

But few see this threat as occurring now, and that undoubtedly contributes to public acceptance of many of the proposed measures. Twenty-four percent of Americans think the federal government in Washington is now violating their constitutional rights, and 71 percent say it is not. This represents a marked change since the question was asked by Gallup in 1995, not long after the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City; then, 58 percent thought the government was violating their rights.

And while African-Americans are slightly more apt than whites to feel their rights are being violated, only 32 percent think this is currently the case. Younger people and those with less education also are more likely to think their rights are being violated, although only a minority of each group feels this way.

Rights most often mentioned as being compromised by the government include freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and gun ownership.

THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

After a series of further U.S. military gains in Afghanistan, public confidence that the U.S. is winning the war has reached a new high. There have also been rebounds in public optimism that the U.S. will kill or capture Osama bin Laden and maintain the international alliance.

Now 51 percent say the war is going very well, and 42 percent say it is going somewhat well. Only 5 percent say the war is going badly. This is up from just three weeks ago, after the fall of Kabul last month, and this is now the highest level of optimism measured by this poll since the start of the war.

The recent military victories have also renewed public confidence in the U.S. government's ability to capture or kill bin Laden and to keep the international alliance. Thirty-seven percent now are very confident that the U.S. will capture or kill bin Laden, and another four in ten are somewhat confident. These views are comparable to the optimism the public expressed just after the bombing campaign began.

The public has mixed opinions about how bin Laden should be tried if he is captured alive. Thirty-four percent say he should be tried by a military cout in the U.S.; 18 percent think he should be tried by a criminal court in the U.S., and 42 percent say he should be tried by an international court.

There are party differences in these views: more Republicans would prefer that he be tried by a military court in the U.S., while more Democrats would prefer that his trial take place in an international court.

Confidence in the ability of the government to maintain the international alliance of countries supporting U.S. military efforts has also bounced back somewhat, although it is still lower than at the beginning of the war. Now, a third are very confident the U.S. will be able to maintain the international alliance, and 57 percent are somewhat confident. When the attacks began in early October, 46 percent were very confident, and 44 percent were somewhat confident.

Yet there are concerns that the war against Afghanistan could become part of a much larger conflict. Sixty-nine percent think it is very or somewhat likely that the fighting in Afghanistan could spread to a larger war between Western countries and Muslim countries; 29 percent think this is unlikely.

If Iraq's Saddam Hussein does not keep his promise to allow inspectors full access to look for weapons of mass destruction, almost three quarters of Americans support some expansion of the conflict in the Middle East to include Iraq. Seventy-four percent say that under those circumstances they would favor immediately using the U.S. air force to bomb targets in Iraq. This is similar to the responses given in 1998 for this question.

As has been the case all along, the public overwhelmingly supports the military attacks in Afghanistan, as well as the humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. Now 91 percent approve of the military attacks led by the U.S. in Afghanistan, and 86 percent approve of the U.S. providing food and humanitarian aid to the people in Afghanistan.

THE MIDDLE EAST

In light of the recent suicide bombings in Israel, public support for Israel in the Middle East conflict has gone up. With regard to the situation in the Middle East, 57 percent now say they are more in sympathy with Israel, while 13 percent say they sympathize more with the Arab nations; 10 percent sympathize with neither. This is the highest level of support for Israel, and the lowest for the Arab nations, since 1991.

Thirty-nine percent favor the establishment of a Palestinian homeland in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; 27 percent oppose that, and another one third have no opinion one way or the other. These views have not changed much since October.

A majority of the public approves of President Bush's involvement in the Middle East – 64 percent say his involvement is about right, while 18 percent would like to see him more involved, and 13 percent say he should be less involved.

THE ECONOMY

Even during this time of war, the American public has another priority here ahome - the national economy. Worries about the economy and the job market are now mentioned by three in ten Americans when it comes to the problem they most want the government to address, higher than concerns about any part of the war against terrorism.

Economic concerns was the top issue for the public before the September 11 terrorist attacks, but it is now mentioned by even more people - in August, 16 percent named the economy and jobs as the most important problem for the government.

Despite growing concerns about the issue, 55 percent still rate the condition of the economy as very good or fairly good, while 43 percent say it is fairly bad or very bad. But looking ahead, nearly twice as many expect the economy to get worse than expect it to get better. Forty-five percent think the economy will stay about the same. These views have not changed much in the past month.

Economic woes seem to have dampened the holiday spirits of some Americans. Although a majority of Americans say they will spend just as much on gifts this holiday season as they did last year, one in four plan to spend less, and only one in ten plan to spend more.

This is about the same as what people said they would spend for the holidays in 1996, but better than in 1991, when the economy was in deep trouble.

THE PRESIDENT

President Bush continues to get strong support from the American public. Nine in 10 Americans approve of his handling of the campaign against terrorism, virtually unchanged from last month.

His overall job approval rating also remains at a high level. Now 86 percent of Americans approve of the job he doing and only 9 percent disapprove.

With Americans supportive of the war in Afghanistan and the way their president is handling it, Mr. Bush also receives high marks on his handling of foreign policy. Seventy-five percent approve of his job on foreign policy and only 13 percent disapprove, unchanged from October. Back in August only 49 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Bush's handling of foreign policy. And even with confirmation that the economy has been in a recession since March, six in 10 Americans approve of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy; 26 percent disapprove.

As time passes since the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the downturn in the economy is pushed more to the forefront, Americans have become more comfortable with the idea of criticizing the president. Seven in 10 say it is okay to criticize the president on economic and domestic issues. And 58 percent now say it is acceptable to criticize the president on military issues. These numbers have increased in each survey since early October.

Half of Americans also feel everyone should have the right to criticize the government overall. A comparison to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in 1970 shows there is slightly more tolerance now for free speech than there was in 1970; but 30 years ago the country was embroiled in anti-war protsts, which certainly affected people's views then. Now, 50 percent think that people should be allowed to criticize the government, even if the criticism is damaging to national interests.

THE GOVERNMENT

Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, but the high level of trust in the government that has been seen since the September 11 attacks may be starting to recede.

Despite concerns about the economy, currently 64 percent say that things in this country are generally going in the right direction - the highest level ever recorded in a CBS/New York Times poll. Just 27 percent now say the country has gotten off on the wrong track.

But there are partisan differences. By a large margin, Republicans feel the country is headed in the right direction; 81 percent feel this way, while only 10 percent feel things have gotten off on the wrong track. Democrats, on the other hand, are split; 48 percent say things are headed in the right direction while 44 percent feel things in this country are on the wrong track.

One perception of government that has improved is that more people now see the government as an entity that solves problems. The number of people who feel the government solves more problems than it creates has increased significantly, to 42 percent now - the highest number in the history of the CBS News/New York Times poll. However, slightly more Americans – 44 percent - still say the federal government creates more problems than it solves. Back in 1999, only 25 percent said the government solved more problems than it created, while 64 percent said the government created more problems than it solved.

Congressional approval remains higher than it was before the attacks, but it has waned some since October. Fifty-seven percent now approve of the job Congress is doing, down from 67 percent some six weeks ago. Back in August, only 43 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.

LIVING IN THE AFTERMATH OF SEPTEMBER 11

September 11 changed the lives of many Americans. However, Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of changing their holiday traditions because of the terrorist attacks, and now, three months later, relatively fewer people are worried about another terrorist attack on the United States in the next few months.

Fifty-five percent of Americans say their life has changed in some way because of the events of September 11.

The changes that have occurred mostly concern being on higher alert and feeling less safe. But a similar number also report that they lost a job or income as a result of the September 11 attacks.

Perhaps due to public optimism about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, concerns of another terrorist attack on the U.S. are now the lowest they've been since the September 11 attacks. Twenty-three percent now say it is very likely that there will be another terrorist attack on the U.S. in the next few months, 50 percensay another attack is somewhat likely, and 24 percent say it is not likely. At the end of October, 53 percent said it was very likely that there would be another terrorist attack on the U.S. within the next few months.

Twenty-four percent are now personally concerned about a terrorist attack in the area where they live; 75 percent are not concerned. Those in the Northeast remain more concerned about another attack in the area in the near future, with 31 percent saying so.

The public remains generally confident that the government will protect them from terrorist attacks. Seventeen percent say they have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the government to provide protection for its citizens against future terrorist attacks, and 60 percent say they have a fair amount of confidence. However, the level of confidence has continued to slip since shortly after September 11, when 35 percent said they had a great deal of confidence in the government's ability to protect its citizens.

Still, Americans refuse to change their holiday traditions because of the terrorist threats. Ninety-three percent say people should celebrate the holiday season the same way they always do. Only 6 percent say people should not do certain things because of terrorism.

And when it comes to this Christmas season, most Americans think it is possible to provide adequate security at the White House for it to be open to the public for viewing of the Christmas decorations; 43 percent don't think this is possible.

PERCEPTIONS OF ARAB AMERICANS AND IMMIGRANTS IN GENERAL

Although a majority of the public believes Arab Americans are not more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans are, the percentage who think they are more sympathetic has risen since September. Now, a third of Americans think Arab Americans are more sympathetic to terrorists, up from 26 percent.

The American public continues to favor decreased immigration. Six in ten Americans now think legal immigration to the United States should be decreased; 29 percent say it should be kept at the present level, and less than one in ten say it should be increased. The public has typically favored less immigration, but support for decreased immigration has been rising since September 11.

One reason the public disfavors immigration may be because they think most immigrants are here illegally. In this poll, more than half respondents say most of the people who moved to the United States in the past few years are here illegally, and only 29 percent say most foreign residents have legal immigration status.

This poll finds an interesting shift in public attitudes towards immigrants, however. For the first time since the CBS News/New York Times poll started asking this question, a majority, 51 percent, say that most recent immigrants contribute to this country, and only 31 percent say recent immigrants mostly cause problems. Attitudes on this question have been quite he opposite in the past, with more people - and often majorities - saying immigrants mostly cause problems. One explanation for this change is perhaps people are thinking of immigrants in the context of the recent terrorist attacks, and interpreting "problems" more narrowly, agreeing that most immigrants are not associated with terrorism.


This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1,052 adults, interviewed by telephone December 7-10, 2001. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points.

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