Human Rights

Two New Polls Obscure American Views of Obama's Drone Program

Opinion polls are supposed to offer us a snapshot of the public's mood, but these merely muddied the waters.

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Two new and widely discussed polls provide a distorted picture of Americans' views on civil liberties and the Obama administration's expanded drone program. (While I am not suggesting these polls were intentionally skewed, I do question their methodology.)

A CBS poll found that 71 percent of Americans approve of the drone program. And by a 49-38 margin, a plurality approved of targeting U.S. citizens “who are suspected of carrying out terrorist activities against the U.S.”


Another poll, conducted for The Hill by Opinion Pulse Research found similar results, but another question it looked at got more attention. Asked whether the Obama administraton has been better, worse or about the same as the Bush administration was “in striking the right balance between ensuring national security and protecting civil liberties,” a majority – 52 percent – said that Obama has been worse (37 percent) or about the same (15 percent).

Both questions have problems. The first is that both polls asked about “suspected terrorists” (CBS) or “people in foreign countries whom the US government says are terrorists and present an imminent threat” (The Hill).

At this point, Americans have been conditioned to think of terrorists as superhuman monsters who pose an existential threat to the world's most powerful superpower. Using the word in a poll primes the pump, activating respondents' fear centers. You could probably get at least a plurality to support anything when it comes to “terrorists” – flaying them alive, feeding them to sharks. A cautious pollster could come up with a question using more neutral terminology – asking, for example, if people approve of the targeted assassination of those suspected of being involved with "violent militant groups."

Perhaps a bigger problem is that these questions completely obscure the heart of the debate over drone strikes. The Hill poll does that in two ways. First, we're told that the issue is about people “the US government says are terrorists and presents an imminent threat.” But at the heart of any serious criticism of Obama's extended drone program is its lack of oversight and due process -- saying the “government” deems them to be terrorists obscures that criticism.

According to a legal memo justifying the assassination of American citizens obtained by journalist Michael Isikoff, “an 'informed, high-level' official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been 'recently' involved in 'activities' posing a threat of a violent attack and 'there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.'”

What's more, while the poll mentions people who pose an “imminent threat,” the administration's definition of imminence has been the subject of fierce criticism. Isikoff continues:

The confidential Justice Department “white paper” introduces a more expansive definition of self-defense or imminent attack... It refers, for example, to what it calls a “broader concept of imminence” than actual intelligence about any ongoing plot against the U.S. homeland.

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Congress has been pushing for more oversight, to no avail. And even defenders of the drone program, like Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, nonetheless believe “the drone program should be taken out of the CIA and put into the Department of Defense, which is subject to greater congressional oversight,” according to the Wall Street Journal ($$).

What do Americans think about this? We certainly can't tell by the results of these two polls. 

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter