Polls On Drones Ignore Larger Issue Of Targeted Killing

A new poll from Gallup is out today showing wide support for the Obama administration’s use of drones in counter-terrorism operations overseas. But what this poll — and many others on the subject — doesn’t tell us, however, is what Americans think about a far more significant aspect of the administration’s counter-terrorism program: targeted killing.

Taken in the weeks after a new surge of interest in drones, the new Gallup poll finds that 65 percent of respondents agreed the U.S. “should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists.” Only 28 percent disagreed with the question, with 8 percent professing no opinion on the matter. Sixty-six percent disapproved of using drones against terror suspects on American soil. An even greater number — 79 percent — felt that the U.S. should not launch airstrikes on American citizens in the U.S.:

Gallup’s results are similar to findings from both a Washington Post poll taken in 2012 and one conducted by Fox News earlier this month. In those polls, the support for drone use was even higher, but all three do not ask whether respondents agree with the Obama administration’s targeted killing program — the policy for which drones are just one tool used to carry out the policy.

Indeed, what’s more controversial is not drones themselves — as evidenced by the fact that these polls’ results line up with the Obama administration’s position — but the underlining policy that mandates their use: targeted killing of suspected terrorists. Unfortunately, because of that singular focus, none of these polls tell us much about how Americans feel about this program.


Most of the focus in the debate about the Obama administration’s policies has been on the use of new technology in the form of drones, rather than on the killing program itself. In actuality, the program extends far beyond drones, also incorporating the use of Special Forces as well as missile strikes from naval vessels and manned aircraft.

These omissions are significant because we fail to learn what the respondents feel about the targeted killing program in its entirety. There is no mention of so-called “signature strikes” to target military-aged males without knowing precisely who the targets are. Nor are respondents asked about the lack of transparency surrounding the only recently acknowledged program and the unknown number of civilians included in the still disputed number killed under it.

Reports that elements of the targeted killing program may move from the CIA’s control to the Department of Defense likewise seems to build on the focus on the technology over the policy. In making the move, the administration on the surface seems to be responding to public pressure for more transparency related to the program. However, the result may be even more secrecy under the Pentagon’s many clandestine programs.