Civil libertarians are hoping to use John Brennan’s testimony today before the Senate Intelligence Committee to call attention to the administration's controversial drone program, which too often seems to go unscrutinized. Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, and Obama's counterterrorism adviser, is perhaps the government’s leading advocate of the expanded use of lethal drones, and an architect of Bush-era terrorist detention policies, making the stakes especially high. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, one of the Senate’s most ardent defenders of civil liberties, suggested he may even filibuster Brennan’s nomination.
Civil libertarians often gripe about the fact that no one, especially mainline Democrats, seems to care much today about their issues, even though civil liberty concerns helped galvanize the opposition to George W. Bush in his second term and propel Democrats to victory in 2006 and 2008.
The problem for the mostly liberal elites (opinion columnists, lawyers and lawmakers) trying to build a campaign against the excessive use of drones is that the Democratic base simply isn't with them. And unfortunately, the gulf is even wider than most people probably realize.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out Wednesday that all the polling data on drones (of which there is surprisingly little) shows that Americans really love their flying autonomous death robots. A whopping 83 percent of Americans approve of the Obama administration’s use of the aircraft to kill terrorists, according to the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll on the subject, from February 2012. The same poll found that 65 percent of Americans favor the use of drones against American citizens suspected of terrorism overseas.
But it gets worse. Among self-described liberal Democrats, fully 77 percent endorse the use of drones against terrorist targets. On the question of killing Americans in drone strikes, Democrats approved of the use 58-33 percent, as did liberals, 55-35 percent, as the Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out last year.
And it’s not just the Post/ABC News poll. Pew conducted a global survey in June of last year that asked a more controversial question, since it mentioned places far from the battlefield of Afghanistan and broadened the targets to "extremists." “Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?”
Americans were the only nationality to approve of the use of drones, with 62 supporting them and just 28 percent in opposition. And while support was especially high among Republicans (74 percent), most Democrats (58 percent) also approved.
A separate Pew study from October 2011 found that 87 percent of Americans support “increasing the use of unmanned drones,” including a majority of Democrats who said it was a “good thing."
The fact that we have to go back to 2011 to find polling data on drones underscores part of the problem -- people don't seem to care enough about this issue to necessitate more polling on it. Gallup appears to have never asked about drones, and Pew only twice, while the major news organization surveys have almost entirely ignored the issue. For instance, the only time drones have appeared in a New York Times/CBS Poll was in 2009 when respondents were asked to rank the usefulness of various new technologies (military drones came in fourth, between hybrid cars and Wi-Fi).
In 2008, concerns about civil liberties were powerful enough to kill Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA. But this time around, the campaign against John Brennan is meager and passionless. Even advocates seemed to be going through the motions, as if already defeated, because they probably are.
And herein lies the rub: That second Pew poll found that more than 80 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s handling of his role as commander in chief. Obama is a Democrat, they’re Democrats and that’s probably that. It may take a Republican in the White House to get liberals to care about drones again.