Poll: Americans back drone attacks, but not on U.S. citizens abroad
February 7th, 2013
10:04 AM ET
10 years ago

Poll: Americans back drone attacks, but not on U.S. citizens abroad

(CNN) - As CIA Director-nominee John Brennan faces questions Thursday in his Senate confirmation hearings, polls show a vast majority of Americans back the use of military drones–a tactic strongly supported by Brennan.

According to a poll conducted in December, well before the president tapped his top counterterrorism adviser for the nomination, three-quarters of Americans said they support the use of unmanned aerial vehicles abroad to target non-American citizens deemed as threats to the United States.

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The Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind poll, which also showed little partisan divide on the issue, falls in line with an ABC News/Washington Post poll released a year ago, which showed 83% approved of the military practice.

But the public feels differently about another tactic–also supported by the Obama administration–which involves using drones overseas to attack American citizens suspected of terrorist activity. According to the Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind poll, 48% of Americans said it's illegal for the U.S. to attack its own citizens in such situations, while 24% said the practice should be considered legal.

One such incident occurred in September 2011, when a U.S. drone killed American-born and-raised Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a major figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Earlier this week, a controversial memo leaked from the Justice Department that confirmed the Obama administration considers the tactic legal when it entails a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates. While the policy paper had been shown to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees last June, it only became public on Tuesday.

Amid public opposition, including sharp criticism from some lawmakers, President Barack Obama yielded to demands Wednesday to give congressional intelligence committees access to more classified information related to the subject.

Brennan, during his hearing, will likely face scrutiny over the practice. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, for example, told reporters he would "pull out all the stops" to get answers about the legality of targeting Americans involved with al Qaeda overseas.

"The public clearly makes an assumption very different from that of the Obama administration or Mr. Brennan: the public thinks targeting American citizens abroad is out of bounds," said Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and analyst for PublicMind.

Support or opposition to the legality of drone attacks on Americans also does not vary by party lines, according to the poll. Republicans, Democrats or independents are just as likely to say it or is not legal. Non-whites, however, are more likely than whites–57% to 44%–to consider it illegal to target American citizens abroad, according to the survey.

Brennan forcefully stood by the U.S. drone campaign during an April address at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, saying the government acts fully within the law "in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and save American lives."

His comments, however, did not specifically address American citizens abroad.

"President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow," he said. "And not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians."

Brennan also revealed that there are disagreements over use of the program within the administration – but he added that the nation is at war.

"If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven't struggled with this, then they haven't spent much time thinking about it. I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain involved in counterterrorism."

The Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind poll was conducted by telephone from December 10 through December 16 with 814 registered voters. The sampling error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

- CNN's Paul Steinhauser, Barbara Starr and Pam Benson contributed to this report.

Filed under: John Brennan • Polls
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Gurgyl

    How does it know in that group whether there is an American or Osama Bin Laden. Do notbe silly. It is a random target on enemy.

    February 7, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  2. much thunder.little rain

    of course ..why should our military die when drones can be used.....

    February 7, 2013 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  3. jpmichigan

    Once caught with ones pants down, one has to finally tell the truth. This is what has happen with the leaking of the "WHITE PAPERS" the White House tried so hard, even with the courts to protect. Drone attacks on Al-queda is more than fair, for they would do anything to be rid of Americans, they have used their own to shield themselves using women and children.. But, acting like God and labeling who is to be killed is another story.

    February 7, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Drone on Mr. President!! Drone on!!!

    February 7, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  5. Lynda/Minnesota

    "Brennan also revealed that there are disagreements over use of the program within the administration – but he added that the nation is at war."

    Well, yes, we ARE at war, John Brennan. I had no problem with the drone attacks on American-born and-raised Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Then again, I'm not in favor of Americans plotting to kill without conscience or consequence other American citizens. al-Awlaki was plotting to kill us .... so we killed him first.

    Quite the legal conundrum ... yes? This is what happens when one chooses to plot against America. Guess that puts me into the 24% bracket, regardless of what Jon Stewart might think of my preferred choice.

    February 7, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  6. Rudy NYC

    As I recall Anwar al-Awlaki had all but declared war against the United States. We have killed many domestic terrorists over the years, usually with sniper fire or SWAT teams. I cannot speak for every case, but in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki the decision to eliminate him was a defensive action against his declared war.

    February 7, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  7. lottie

    if a us citizen is bombing us or planning terrorist attacks then I see no reason to spend tax payers money on a lengthy trial in the US . if we get the chance to take them out with drones then do it.

    February 7, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  8. Rick McDaniel

    People need to set aside their misguided views, and realize that the ability of the government, to declare someone an "outlaw", and have the ability to put a price on their head, dead or alive...........still is very much possible in today's world. We actually had one case in the last 20 yrs. where that happened.

    Americans are NOT immune from attack by their government, for actions deemed unlawful,, and dangerous to national security. That is the fact of life. Better get used to the idea.

    February 7, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  9. Chipster

    If an American citizen is meeting with a terrorist group to plot against the U.S., then that person's activities should be subject to surveillance. Drones should be used with probable cause for such action but, when there is probable cause, pursue the evidence of terrorist activity. What other nations may do with the technology is something that may need to be dealt with in the future but we must pursue terrorists now.

    February 7, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  10. Tom

    Gee, a poll taken by a very liberal one sided group. Yep, I'm going to believe that one. (eyes rolling)

    February 7, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  11. Evergreen

    An American citizen who joins a terrorist organization to plot attacks aimed at this country has no rights. Otherwise, they would become more of a focus for recruitment by these groups.

    February 7, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  12. steve

    If an American Citizen is a member of a terorist organization, they are a terrorist and a traitor. If they are conspiring to engage in terrorism, blow them up!!

    February 7, 2013 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  13. Pete

    If an American is proven to be a threat to the country of America as a terrorist like it or not he should be terminated ,quit this crap of due process because he's not on American soil and not governed by American laws,enough said!!If that's the case prosecute Bush,Cheney because they murdered thousands of innocent military men,women and civilians with lies,go after them and quit being so sanctumonious,no one should be untouchable,no one if this is the case!!

    February 7, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  14. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    A terrorist is a terrorist and no longer considers himself an American citizens but our military men and women serve as American citizens and if drone attacks avoids putting boots on the ground, use them.

    February 7, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  15. Fair is Fair

    @ Lynda...

    A conundrum indeed. I despise those who would do America harm as much as I love due process of the law. What to do, what to do...

    February 7, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  16. Rosslaw

    The first American member of Al Queda who pulls off a terrorist attack in the US will have the mad dog right screaming for Obama's impeachment. President Obama, keep up the good work that the "big mouth and wide strut" crowd couldn't man uip enough to handle.

    February 7, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  17. Joi Gibson

    I am torn – even though a person is an American citizen, if they renounce that by joining a terrorist organization that openly wishes to do harm to this country, then, to me, that person has forsaken his rights as am American.

    February 7, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  18. Dominican mama 4 Obama


    If an American Citizen is a member of a terorist organization, they are a terrorist and a traitor. If they are conspiring to engage in terrorism, blow them up!!
    Couldn't have expressed that better myself steve.

    February 7, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  19. Fair is Fair


    If an American Citizen is a member of a terorist organization, they are a terrorist and a traitor. If they are conspiring to engage in terrorism, blow them up!!
    and if the intelligence that labelled an individual as a terrorist was wrong, what's the recourse? Saying "oops"? I'd prefer to err on the side of due process.

    February 7, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  20. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    If you take up arms against the U.S. and you're an American citizen, first of all, you're a traitor. Secondly, you've committed treason which is punishable by death. Anwar got what was coming to him. Al Queda's spokesperson is an American citizen. Guess what? He can get a hellfire missle dropped on him as well.

    February 7, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |