A poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University released Thursday finds that a plurality of Americans think drone strikes on American citizens suspected of terrorism are illegal. According to the poll, 48 percent of Americans think it is illegal to “target US citizens living in other countries with drones,” while 24 percent think it is legal. The poll nevertheless finds majority approval for the use of drone attacks against “people and other targets deemed to be a threat to the US” whether carried out by the CIA or the military, as long as those targets are not American citizens.
The poll’s findings seem to be at odds with another survey published last year by the Washington Post, which found that an overwhelming majority of Americans, 89 percent, approve of the use of drones to kill terror suspects abroad, and of those who approve 79 percent also believe it is legal to kill those terror suspects if they are American citizens. Different wording of the relevant questions in each poll may account for the disparate results: The Fairleigh Dickinson poll asks if “Americans living abroad” can be legally targeted, while the Washington Post survey asks whether “suspected terrorists” who “are American citizens living in other countries” can be legally targeted. (Most people think of unmanned drones when they think of targeted killing, but targeted killings can be carried out by other means. The government can also send human assassins to do the job, or fire missiles from ships or manned aircraft.)
Polls are most accurate when aggregated, so it’s still difficult to know exactly how Americans feel about targeted killing. It is possible, however, that increased media scrutiny of the practice has lead to a shift in public opinion.