Terrorism Threat Elevates Public Support for Drones

05/28/2013 09:56 am 09:56:02 | Updated Jul 28, 2013
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Co-authored by Kerstin Fisk, Jennifer Merolla, Jennifer Ramos, and Elizabeth Zechmeister

This past week the Obama administration released records indicating that, alongside the many civilian casualties from drone strikes by the U.S. government, four U.S. citizens have been killed since 2009 in these counterterrorism operations. In his speech at the National Defense University, President Obama defended these actions, as well as the drone program more broadly, while at the same time recognizing some of the human costs to these strikes. According to Obama, the drone strikes have been effective and legal, though he acknowledged being "haunted" by the innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of some of these strikes.

Our own research on this topic (in Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public) suggests that the public is likely to remain supportive of aggressive foreign policy, including drone strikes, in a context in which the Boston marathon bombings and other recent events have increased the salience of terrorism. So long as individuals feel threatened, we find greater support for drone strikes. What is striking about this inclination is its ubiquity and persistence: heightened support for drones under threat conditions is not limited to one partisan identity or another; it spans across contexts of terrorist threat and economic decline; and, it is not muted by simple reminders of democratic values.

In recent times the number of voices questioning the drone program has increased. Several months ago, Rand Paul led a filibuster against John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA in which he critiqued the administration's use of drones. Last month, Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist and writer, testified before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee and warned that the strikes do more long term harm than good for U.S. security since they lead to more anti-Americanism abroad. He remarked: "What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America." Prior to Rand's filibuster or al-Muslimi's testimony, few public figures in the U.S. questioned the use of drone strikes.

This increased criticism has led some to ask whether public opinion for these tactics, and in turn congressional support, will shift. After Rand Paul's filibuster, a Gallup poll showed that 65 percent of the public supported airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists; however, a majority did not support the use of such attacks against U.S. citizens who are suspected terrorists.

While there have been increasing voices critical of the use of drones, there has also been another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, which may further bolster support for the program. In the wake of the Boston attacks, a poll from the Pew Research Center shows that 75 percent of Americans say they expect future terror attacks. This represents an 11 percentage point increase over last year and is higher than worries registered in 2003.

Our research finds that such heightened worry about future terror attacks increases public support for drone strikes. In an online survey conducted last summer with a nationally representative sample of voting age adults, we asked a nuanced set of questions about public support for drone strikes. With a question that allowed individuals to indicate their level of support or opposition to the program, we found that support for drone strikes is only moderate, with the average study participant somewhat supportive of the use of drone strikes that target the leaders of extremist groups in other countries. The average person in our study somewhat agreed that such strikes are necessary to defend countries from extremist groups, but was uncertain about whether they kill too many innocent people and whether they should be conducted without authorization from the country in which the extremists are located.

However, we find that support varies depending on whether or not individuals have recently read news of terror threat. At random, we asked some individuals in our study to read a news story about either the threat of terrorism or the weak U.S. economy, while other individuals did not read any article. Individuals in our study who read about terrorism tended to be more supportive of drone strikes than those who did not read such an article, and were less likely to think that strikes kill too many innocent people. The differences are modest, but they are statistically meaningful. Our study presented a single news story about terrorist threat. We expect the differences we find would be even more pronounced if our control group was compared to those in an environment with a salient terrorist threat and multiple news articles about it, such as following the recent Boston marathon bombing.

In some versions of the terrorism article, we closed with a paragraph reminding people about democratic values, and this reminder did nothing to alter the increased support for drone strikes among those who read about terrorist threat. Furthermore, while baseline support for drone strikes was higher among Republicans than Democrats in our sample, both groups reacted similarly to a threatening news story by becoming more supportive of drone strikes.

Of course, one might expect that when terrorism is a salient threat, individuals would be more supportive of a strategy to combat it, especially if they have in mind targeting non-U.S. citizen militants abroad. However, we found the same type of increase in support for drones among those who read an article about weaknesses in the U.S. economy. Therefore, threat in general, rather than terror specific threat, can lead to more support for aggressive counter-terrorism policies among the public.

Obama remarked: "Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes."

Our research into public opinion under the specter of threat tells us that, especially given the current environment of elevated concern about terrorism, it is likely that the public will be receptive to the arguments made by Obama this past week regarding the effectiveness and importance of this counter-terrorism strategy, and will downplay the cost to innocent lives. For those who believe drone strikes are effective and necessary, this may be good news. For those who believe the strategy is counter-productive, it suggests stronger arguments and efforts will be needed to shift the general opinion of a threatened public.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers 0850824 and 0851136. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.