New Poll: American Support for Drone Strikes Plummets When Innocent US Civilians Killed [Updated]

A 2009 US Air Force photo titled

A 2009 US Air Force photo shows an armed MQ-9 Reaper drone taxiing in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

US policymakers need to know the answer to a simple question about American attitudes toward drones. Does the widely-reported strong public support for drone strikes drop off when confronted with the reality of civilian casualties? Of course those policymakers are not alone in their need for such information. Advocacy groups and others would also benefit from knowing whether—and to what degree—American attitudes are contingent on such aspects of drone warfare. Disappointingly, most of the time and money spent on opinion polls asks only generic questions about Americans’ attitudes toward drone strikes against terrorists. These surveys fail to seek information about public attitudes in the face of drone operations that, in reality, often cause civilian deaths.

That may be changing given the recent CIA strike in Pakistan which resulted in the deaths of Western hostages Giovanni Lo Port and Warren Weinstein. A poll conducted by the Associated Press and the GfK Group in the wake of that tragedy brings us much closer to an understanding of American attitudes that policymakers and others seek. And thanks to additional data that the AP provided me (see Tables below), we can learn even more from these striking findings.

Across the spectrum, commentary on the AP/GfK poll missed the boat. Media outlets highlighted the survey’s finding that a large majority of Americans support drone strikes overseas even if American members of al-Qaeda are targeted. The Hill ran the headline, “Large majority backs drone strikes against US terrorists.” A piece in The Intercept criticized the survey for not asking about civilian casualties. Others who reported the survey results also saw fit to mention only its findings of support for drone strikes in general or against American targets.  Reading such coverage, you would have thought this was like myriad polls that have for years found that a majority of Americans support armed drone operations against terrorists abroad.

But the AP/GfK poll went where other mainstream polls haven’t. It did ask individuals about their support for drone strikes that result in innocent civilian casualties. Admittedly, the poll had its limitations. It regrettably asked only about the situation of American civilian casualties, and not foreign civilian lives. Nevertheless, it is an important piece of the puzzle. And for reasons I explain momentarily, the AP/GfK poll results are also consistent with scholarly research that does not distinguish between American and foreign civilians killed in drone operations.

So what do the AP/GfK numbers tell us? Asked if they “favor or oppose” drone strikes overseas to target members of terrorist groups like al-Qaida, a sizeable majority of Americans (60%) said they favor such drone operations. However, according to the data provided to me by the AP, when those 60% who “favor” drone strikes were asked if it is “acceptable or unacceptable” to use drones to target members of terrorist groups overseas “if there is a risk of innocent Americans being killed,” only 36% 60% of that group — the group that otherwise favors drone strikes — said it would be acceptable. [Update: Put another way, only 36% of Americans favor drone strikes against terrorists and think drone strikes are acceptable even if there’s a risk that an innocent American civilian might be killed.] That’s a whopping drop in support.

It is an even more pronounced drop once you realize that the respondents to the survey were generally much more likely to say a drone operation was “acceptable” than to “favor” it. In other words, the 36% of the overall population would have presumably been even lower if the follow-up question had asked these individuals if they “favor” drone operations in which there is a risk of innocent American civilians being killed.

For what it is worth, while 60% of Americans overall would “favor” drone strikes against terrorists, 47% overall said such drone operations are “acceptable” if there is a risk of innocent American civilians being killed. Once again, if the overall group had been asked whether they “favor” drone operations in which there was a risk of innocent American civilians being killed, that latter number – 47% — would have presumably been much lower.

To get a sense of the gulf between “favoring” drone strikes versus finding drone strikes “acceptable,” compare these two figures: While 60% of respondents said they “favor” drone strikes against members of terrorist groups, a far larger number (74%) said it is “acceptable” if some of the people being targeted are American members of the terrorist groups. It defies common intuition (and other polling data) to think that Americans would be more likely to support drone operations that purposefully kill Americans.

Two points are worth mentioning if we place these results in the context of broader social science research.

First, although the poll asked only about American civilians and not foreign civilians’ lives, its findings are remarkably consistent with the most relevant social science research on this issue. A recent study used experiments that asked Americans a generic question about their support for drone operations: 52% of respondents said they approved. The researchers, however, posed the question to one group but added a statement that drone strikes “often caused a number of civilian casualties” and that “this collateral damage may mean there are more civilian deaths than are actually reported.” Support for drone operations plummeted: only 27% approved.

Second, the reaction to civilian casualties may be a psychological effect of drone operations in particular. A recent study published in the journal Political Psychology suggests that drones raise individuals’ expectations of precision-based targeting, and thus may produce substantially greater opposition when drone strikes result in civilian casualties.

Thanks to the AP/GfK poll, US policymakers and others are one step closer to understanding the contours of American attitudes toward drone operations and, more specifically, the conditions under which public support can be counted upon. It will be a remarkable irony if drone operations rather than making warfighting more likely because of the lack of risks to one’s own soldiers, actually make it less likely due to the increased public expectations of lack of civilian casualties. There are many other policy questions that turn on these empirics. One thing is 100% true: We will all be better equipped to analyze such questions if future studies of American attitudes on drones follow the lead of the social science researchers and polls like the one conducted by the AP/GfK Group.


Favor drone strikes
Think they’re acceptable even if an innocent American might be killed
Neither favor nor oppose drone strikes generally
Think they’re acceptable even if an innocent American might be killed
Overall think drone strikes are acceptable if an innocent American could be killed 47%(of all Americans sampled)


Favor drone strikes
Think it’s acceptable to target an American citizen
Neither favor nor oppose drone strikes generally
Think they’re acceptable even if an American citizen is targeted
Overall think that it’s acceptable to target an American citizen 73%(of all Americans sampled)


[Note: This post was updated thanks to Cody Poplin who brought to my attention that, in effect, 60% of the group of respondents who favored drone operations also found such operations acceptable if an innocent American civilian might be killed. I have also updated the Tables to make clear that those figures reflect percentages of the overall population sampled.] 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).