Micah Zenko

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U.S. Public Opinion on Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
March 18, 2013

An armed drone prepares to take off in Afghanistan (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). An armed drone prepares to take off in Afghanistan (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Although the United States has been killing suspected terrorists with drone strikes in nonbattlefield settings for over ten years, public opinion polling of the controversial tactic began only a year and a half ago. Averaged together, the polls demonstrate that 65 percent of Americans support the targeted killing of suspected terrorists, and 51 percent approve killing U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorism.

Examining the polls below (presented in chronological order), the context and framing of the question varies widely. For example, targets are alternately described as “suspected terrorists,” “extremists,” those “deemed a threat to the United States,” and “high-level terrorism suspects.” It is also revealing that, according to a February 2013 poll, support for U.S. military drone strikes (75 percent) is considerably higher than for those conducted by the CIA (65 percent). Finally, it is remarkable how normalized drone strikes have become over the years, to the point that Americans are more comfortable with killing suspected terrorists than torturing them for information.


Washington Post/ABC News Poll, (September 1, 2011)

I’m going to name some specific actions taken by the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  For each please tell me if you think it was very effective, somewhat effective, somewhat ineffective or very ineffective at reducing the threat of terrorism against the United States? How effective is using missile strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen?

CBS News Poll (November 6-10, 2011)

Is it ever okay for the United States to authorize the killing of an American citizen in a foreign country if that person is known to be a terrorist, or is that never okay?

  • Okay: 53%
  • Never Okay: 35%
  • Unsure: 12%

Washington Post/ABC News Poll (February 1-4, 2012)

Changing topics, thinking about the following decision of the Obama administration, please tell me whether you strong approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, or strongly disapprove of the use of unmanned “drone” aircraft against terrorist suspects overseas:

(If approve of drone aircraft) What if those suspected terrorists are American citizens living in other countries? In that case, do you approve or disapprove of the use of drones?

  • Approve: 79%
  • Disapprove: 17%
  • No opinion: 4%

Pew Research Center (April 2012)

Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?

  • Approve: 62%
  • Disapprove: 28%
  • Unsure: 10%

Farleigh-Dickinson PublicMind Poll  (February 7, 2013)

1)      To the best of your knowledge, can the United States target U.S. citizens living in other countries with drones, or is that illegal?

2)      In general, do you approve or disapprove of the U.S. military using drones to carry out attacks abroad on people and other targets deemed a threat to the United States?

3)      In general, do you approve or disapprove of the CIA using drone to carry out attack abroad on people and other targets deemed a threat to the United States?

Pew Research Center (July 10, 2012)

Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?

  • Approve: 55%
  • Disapprove: 34%
  • Unsure: 11%

CBS News Poll (February 6-10, 2013)

1)      Do you favor or oppose the United States using unmanned aircraft or drones to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries?

  • Favor: 71%
  • Oppose: 20%
  • Unsure: 9%

2)      Do you favor or oppose the U.S. targeting and killing American citizens in foreign countries who are suspected of carrying out terrorist activities against the United States?

  • Favor: 49%
  • Oppose: 38%
  • Unsure: 13%

Pew Research Center (February 7-10, 2013)

Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?

  • Approve: 56%
  • Disapprove: 26%
  • Unsure: 18%

NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll (February 21-24, 2013)

Do you favor or oppose the use of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, to kill suspected members of al-Qaeda and other terrorists?

  • Favor: 64%
  • Oppose: 12%
  • Don’t know enough: 22%
  • Depends: 1%
  • Unsure: 1%

Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey (February 2013)

The government has used unmanned military aircraft, or drones, to kill American citizens who are suspected of being terrorists. When it comes to the use of drones, how concerned are you that the government may abuse its power…a lot, some, not too much or not at all?

  • A lot: 32%
  • Some: 27%
  • Not too much: 19%
  • Not at all: 17%
  • Don’t know/Refused: 5%

Fox News Poll (March 4, 2013)

Do you approve or disapprove of the United States using unmanned aircraft called drones:

1)      To kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country?

  • Approve: 74%
  • Disapprove: 22%
  • Don’t know: 4%

2)      To kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country if the suspect is a U.S. citizen?

  • Approve: 60%
  • Disapprove: 36%
  • Don’t know: 5%

3)      To kill a suspected foreign terrorist on U.S. soil?

  • Approve: 56%
  • Disapprove: 40%
  • Don’t know: 4%

4)      To kill a suspected terrorist who is a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?

  • Approve: 45%
  • Disapprove: 50%
  • Don’t know: 5%

5)      Do you think the president of the United States, on his own, should be able to authorize the use of deadly force, such as a drone strike, to kill a suspected terrorist who is a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?

  • Yes: 32%
  • No: 63%
  • Don’t know: 5%

YouTube/Huffington Post Poll (March 6, 2013)

1)      Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama administration using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas?

  • Approve: 53%
  • Disapprove: 22%
  • Not Sure: 25%

2)      Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama administration using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas even if those suspects are American citizens?

  • Approve: 42%
  • Disapprove: 30%
  • Not sure: 29%

3)      Which of these comes closest to your opinion on whether it should be legal for the president to target a U.S. citizen inside the United States using a drone strike?

  • This should be legal in extraordinary circumstances: 33%
  • There are no circumstances when this should be legal: 47%
  • Not sure: 20%

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Aslam khan

    Type your comment in here…most American DONT know the ground situation and peaceful million who have nothing to do with terrorist activities but average are killed by drone is women children elder and displace thousands and people’s are in depression and fear could not sleep at night . It’s against the human right and clear violation of sovereignty of other country
    Because of corrupt government and corrupt pitician for US Aid selling their people’s dignity and peaceful life .

  • Posted by Phil, Ireland

    Great analysis of public opinion polls SO FAR. It gives you a feel for the national debate HOWEVER, for the drone-uninitiated it is important to note that the average person has very little real understanding of the number of strikes carried out, where and since when and how the targeting has been done or how many innocent people have been slaughtered (my word) etc..

    The average persons general concept of killing evil terrorist in some ‘A-rab’ country is pretty much all the vast majority of people know. US civilians are self-admittedly extremely introspective and would not generally know about or ever think about the geography of Pakistan, for instance.. i.e. where exactly Pakistan is, where IN Pakistan the strikes have been carried out etc etc etc… there are quite a few things to know and understand to really appreciate what ‘drone strikes’ are? So simply stopping somebody on the street and asking them what they think of Drone Strikes is almost entirely pointless… EXCEPT that in the future, hopefully not too distant, people will know MORE about drone technology and drone assassination from people like this author and hopefully speak up about it to their elected representatives. So the polls to date will only serve as a future analysis of how people gradually understood more and more about the drone program and as a result their ‘informed opinions’ will be shown to have changed and moved away from the over simplified views they undoubtedly have to date.

    Of course this is all because the media has been so slow and so poor at reporting upon the drone program COUPLED WITH the total lack of transparency and accountability by both the Bush and Obama administrations i.e. the drone program was kept in the dark behind the curtain controlled by a very narrow exec structure and there has been very few investigative journalists doing ANY good work in this area of note, except those like Micah Zenko of course.

    Polling in this context and the figures they produce is not instructive of public opinion any more than asking people on the street about the Higgs Boson particle. People are only aware of vague details and have absorbed willfully incorrect memes on the issue in that the only info known on the drone program was leaked by the CIA in a very determined long term strategy to gradually mold opinion and media response. Explaining the drone program and the issues surrounding it requires a minimum of a 20 min conversation if you really know your stuff as Micah does. Hence all the articles on all the different angles on this thing, as it unfolds.

    Opinion polls are as instructive on this issue right now as is the poor quality representation of the issue within the subject-ignorant TV media itself.

    Stupid is as stupid does, present company excluded.

  • Posted by Earnest B

    And if the caveat was added: “knowing that innocent civilians, including women and children would likely be killed or injured” … How would that affect the respondents approval?
    In most “justice” systems, even those condoning capital punishment, a guilty verdict does not maim and kill the defendants family.
    Polls such as these highlighted here have no value

  • Posted by U.S. Anthony

    I notice that all the questioned were labeled “suspected terrorist” and not known terrorist. My question would be more like. Do you think one individual in the U.S. government should be able to determine that a U.S citizens is a terrorist in or even out of country and order that individuals death without due process and just in their opinion?
    Many people around the world and in the U.S. feed the hungry, help the poor without any concern for their cultural, religious or even political beliefs. I think the hardest question is, What and who can actucally define what a terrorist really is.
    Is it the American soldier that helps a non-american wounded person to shelter from the cars bombs that are exploding around the world or the non-american man feeding the homeless at a local soap kitchen.
    Today, I think the term for terrorist has become so broad that almost any individual could be so labeled.
    “What is your definition of a suspected Terrorist and does that waive that suspect’s constitutional rights?”

  • Posted by S. Ramasamy

    I am really shocked to see that they (the american’s) can kill the people of other countries that too in their countries by drone strikes as if the other country people are insects or fishes. (note: we cannot kill animals purposely). Also, the american’s do not favour the killing of suspected terrorists if they are citizens of their country. (compare the percentage with that of other country suspected terrorists). Please, I request the american public to be fair in making comments regarding drone strikes that too in a foreign soil other than america. Also, don’t think that America is heaven. America may be heaven to americans but not for others

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