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Right policy, wrong questions

Associated Press

There hasn't been extensive polling on U.S. use of military drones as part of the nation's counter-terrorism efforts, so I was glad to see Gallup publish some new data. And while the results were interesting, I don't think the pollster necessarily asked the right questions.

Gallup found, for example, that a 65% majority supports using drones to launch airstrikes "in other countries against suspected terrorists." The numbers change when the suspected terrorists are American citizens -- 41% support these drone strikes abroad and 13% endorse these drone strikes over U.S. soil. Another 25% back using drones to target suspected terrorists in the U.S. who are not American citizens.

The results are not trivial, but there is a disconnect between the questions and actual policies. Adam Serwer questioned the premise of Gallup's poll.

Although most of the debate over targeted killing has focused on drones, the survey is of limited usefulness because it focuses on the method of killing rather than the authority to kill. As far as Americans are concerned, the question is really whether and under what circumstances the government has the authority to use lethal force and what the limits are on that authority.

Quite right. The drones themselves are a fairly new tool, but the use of technology is tangential to the underlying point about the use of force, and in the case of U.S. citizens accused of terrorism abroad, due process rights. Whether there's a human pilot in a cockpit targeting suspected terrorists from a fighter jet or a human directing a drone from a remote location isn't directly relevant to the core debate.

What's more, let's also not forget that, as best as I can tell, no one is seriously proposing using aerial strikes over U.S. soil because it's so unnecessary.

Putting aside, for a moment, legitimate questions of legality and propriety, proponents of foreign drone strikes argue that they're needed to reach remote areas where there are basic logistical concerns about sending U.S. troops.

There are no such areas in the United States. It's not like there are warlords who've seized control of pockets of American soil -- we have federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials who can already go wherever they need to go to protect the public.

I'm intrigued by some of Gallup's results, but I'm not sure they do much to advance the debate.