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Drone Program Poll: The Public Does Not Uncritically Embrace Targeted Killings

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Michael Isikoff's Feb. 4 report on the "white paper" -- a 16-page memo that laid out, in part, the legal underpinnings that guide the Obama administration's policy of carrying out what they call "targeted killings" with drones -- ushered the use of drones back into the public consciousness.

The "targeted killing" policy, famously and controversially, extends to American citizens, and the release of the white paper brought all of those attendant controversies to new bloom -- so much so that President Barack Obama was compelled to (glancingly!) mention the policy during his State of the Union address this week.

Yet somehow, two days after Isikoff's story blew up, Chris Cillizza put up a post at the Washington Post's "The Fix" blog that strongly suggested the matter was a settled issue, at least where the American people were concerned. Titled "The American public loves drones," it presented some compelling poll findings, conducted by the Post and ABC News, in which they found that "eight in ten Americans (83 percent) approved of the Obama Administrations use of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists overseas -- with a whopping 59 percent strongly approving of the practice," and that "two-thirds of people in the survey" expressed an approval for "using drones to target American citizens who are suspected terrorists."

Cillizza also included similar findings from a Pew poll, dovetailing with the Post's own, and this was apparently sufficient to suffuse this report with language that connoted a certain finality:

But, it’s also important to remember as the drone debate gains steam in Washington that there is little public appetite for an extended look at how unmanned attacks fit into our broader national security policy. Minds are made up on the matter.And, if the public has anything to do with it, drones are here to stay.

Ahh, but here's the rub: The two polls Cillizza mentions are from February 2012 (Washington Post/ABC News) and September 2011 (Pew) -- both well before Isikoff's actual news broke and re-ignited the debate.

So I have no idea why Cillizza would say something like, "It's important to remember as the drone debate gains steam in Washington that there is little public appetite for an extended look" at the issue. Temporally speaking, this is illiterate: His examination of the public's appetite is based on ancient history. (You'd think he would also be able to handle the whole concept of newly broken news reopening a debate and reshaping public opinion.)

As it happens, The Huffington Post, in conjunction with YouGov, has poll results on the matter from a survey conducted after Isikoff's story broke, and guess what? Blind support for drones is not nearly as monolithic as Cillizza contends, and it pretty much all depends on who is getting transformed into charred human remains.

In the main, Americans are largely supportive of using drone strikes to kill "high-level terrorists." From there, however, they get wobbly:

According to the new Huffpost/YouGov poll, 56 percent of Americans say that the drone program should be used to target and kill high-level terrorists, while only 13 percent say that anyone suspected of being associated with a terrorist group should be targeted. Another 13 percent said that nobody should be killed using the drone program. A majority of Americans across most demographic and partisan groups agreed that the program should be used for high-level targets.

Naturally, there's little support for using drones to just kill any old terrorist functionary -- we're told we have a huge deficit problem, after all! And the media tends to overstate the extent to which "high-level targets" are being exclusively targeted at a high level. According to a study conducted by the New America Foundation, "only 2 percent of those killed met that definition."

The killing of innocent bystanders also has been largely obscured by the media's uncritical embrace of the term "militant" -- which, as Glenn Greenwald points out is simply a euphemism for "any human being whose life is extinguished when an American missile or bomb detonates." When The New York Times reported on the Obama administration's "kill list," the convenient elasticity of the relevant terminology merited a mention:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.

Read further in that Times report, and you'll find opinions from members of the intelligence community, who fret that this is essentially "'guilt by association' that has led to 'deceptive' estimates of civilian casualties."

The salient point is this, however: Respondents in the HuffPost/YouGov survey take a very dim view of the drone program "if there was a possibility of killing innocent people," with only 27 percent in favor.

Lawmakers, when they hear assertions about the public's widespread, uncritical embrace of the drone program, tend to get skittish about questioning the program's use, effectiveness or legality. The news I would share with such lawmakers is that the public's widespread, uncritical embrace of the drone program has been greatly exaggerated, full stop. Make of that what you will.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling.

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