AP: Americans Strongly Support Different, Imaginary Drone Program

Dan Froomkin and Jon Schwarz — The Intercept May 1, 2015

The headline on the Associated Press story is unambiguous: “AP Poll: Americans approve of drone strikes on terrorists.” And that’s true! According to the AP’s poll, 60 percent of Americans support the use of drones to “target and kill people belonging to terrorist groups like al-Qaida.”

Somewhere in the U.S., a drone pilot remotely guides an armed UAV to its designated target. Click to enlarge

The problem is the U.S. drone program does much more than kill members of al-Qaida: it also kills a significant number of civilians, and drone operators often don’t even know exactly whom they’re targeting. So the AP’s own poll doesn’t show, as the story claims, “broad support among the U.S. public for a targeted killing program begun under President George W. Bush and expanded dramatically under Obama.” What it does show is broad support for a drone program that doesn’t exist.

And strangely enough, if you get all the way to the story’s ninth paragraph, you learn that the AP’s own reporters have a pretty good hunch that the previous eight paragraphs were bullshit:

The poll did not include questions about foreign civilian casualties or about public confidence in the government’s assertion that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes are terrorists. Independent groups have estimated that at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of noncombatants have been killed in the operations, a count the U.S. government disputes.

Drone skeptics say most polls on the subject frame the question with the assumption that those targeted are terrorists, when it’s not clear that is always the case.

“Almost everyone, of course, is going to support killing people who are trying to kill us, but that’s not who we are necessarily targeting in each case,” said Sarah Kreps, an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.

Kreps examined poll data and found that if respondents are confronted with evidence of errors and civilian casualties in some drone strikes, support for the strikes drops below a majority.

The story was written by Ken Dilanian (@kendilanianap) and Emily Swanson (@el_swan). Was this their way of saying: Our pollsters are a bunch of propagandists who ask questions to elicit the answers they want? Or are they saying: Some people think we’re not asking the right question, but just we don’t care?

We invite their response, and will update the post with any we get.

The poll was conducted for the AP by GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. First drone question is: “Do you favor or oppose the United States using small unmanned aircraft called ‘drones’ to target and kill people belonging to terrorist groups like al-Qaida overseas?”

We’d prefer a question like: “Do you support the U.S. government killing Americans who it claims to be involved in terrorism, without charges, trial or a lawyer?”

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