WASHINGTON — Nearly three-quarters of Americans say it’s acceptable for the U.S. to use an unmanned aerial drone to kill an American citizen abroad if that person has joined a terror organization, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
A majority, 6 in 10, supports the use of drones to target terrorists in general. Only 13 percent oppose the use of drones, the poll said, and another 24 percent don’t feel strongly either way.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 23-27, in the days after President Barack Obama publicly apologized for a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that inadvertently killed American hostage Warren Weinstein and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto. The strike also killed Ahmed Farouq, an American citizen who was an al-Qaida planning leader. Another strike killed Adam Gadhani, an American citizen who joined al-Qaida and became Osama Bin Laden’s spokesman.
The survey is the latest in several years of data showing broad support among the U.S. public for a targeted killing program begun under President George W. Bush and expanded dramatically under Obama. While the U.S. once condemned Israel for targeted killing from the air, such operations are now the centerpiece of American counterterrorism policy, and they enjoy widespread public backing.
Support for targeted killing with drones crosses party lines, the new poll found. Nearly 6 in 10 Democrats favor using drones to bomb members of terrorist groups, while only 16 percent are opposed. Among Republicans, 72 percent are in favor and only 10 percent are opposed. Independents are more ambivalent, with 45 percent in favor and 12 percent opposed; 37 percent are neutral on the issue.
Just 47 percent of Americans think it’s appropriate to use drones to target terrorists overseas if innocent Americans might be killed in the process.
More than 4 in 10 (43 percent) of those who initially said they favor using drones — or that they didn’t favor or oppose using them — said it’s unacceptable to use drones if innocent Americans could be killed.
The poll did not include questions about foreign civilian casualties or about public confidence in the government’s assertion that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes are terrorists. Independent groups have estimated that at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of noncombatants have been killed in the operations, a count the U.S. government disputes.
“Almost everyone, of course, is going to support killing people who are trying to kill us, but that’s not who we are necessarily targeting in each case,” said Sarah Kreps, an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.
Kreps examined poll data and found that if respondents are confronted with evidence of errors and civilian casualties in some drone strikes, support for the strikes drops below a majority.
Since the first operation in 2002, there have been 396 drone strikes in Pakistan and 126 in Yemen, according to the New America Foundation, which tracks the strikes using media reports. The CIA has conducted all of the strikes in Pakistan and most of them in Yemen, though the military also conducts drone strikes in Yemen.
The pace of strikes in both countries has diminished in recent years. Obama imposed a standard in Yemen that no strike would occur unless there was a near certainty that no civilian would be harmed. That standard — more restrictive than the rules governing traditional military action — was not in place in Pakistan, which is considered part of the Afghan war theater. In Pakistan, the drop-off in strikes has been attributed to the success of the program in destroying much of core al-Qaida.
The AP-GfK Poll of 1,077 adults was conducted online April 23-27, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.