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Poll: Americans back drone attacks, but not on U.S. citizens abroad

A Predator drone at a US Air Force base , Photo Credit: US Air Force, Photo Date: Summer 2011

A Predator drone at a US Air Force base , Photo Credit: US Air Force, Photo Date: Summer 2011

By Ashley Killough

(CNN) — As CIA Director-nominee John Brennan faces questions Thursday in his Senate confirmation hearings, polls show a vast majority of Americans back the use of military drones–a tactic strongly supported by Brennan.

According to a poll conducted in December, well before the president tapped his top counterterrorism adviser for the nomination, three-quarters of Americans said they support the use of unmanned aerial vehicles abroad to target non-American citizens deemed as threats to the United States.

The Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll, which also showed little partisan divide on the issue, falls in line with an ABC News/Washington Post poll released a year ago, which showed 83% approved of the military practice.

But the public feels differently about another tactic–also supported by the Obama administration–which involves using drones overseas to attack American citizens suspected of terrorist activity. According to the Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll, 48% of Americans said it’s illegal for the U.S. to attack its own citizens in such situations, while 24% said the practice should be considered legal.

One such incident occurred in September 2011, when a U.S. drone killed American-born and-raised Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a major figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Earlier this week, a controversial memo leaked from the Justice Department that confirmed the Obama administration considers the tactic legal when it entails a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or one of its affiliates. While the policy paper had been shown to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees last June, it only became public on Tuesday.

Amid public opposition, including sharp criticism from some lawmakers, President Barack Obama yielded to demands Wednesday to give congressional intelligence committees access to more classified information related to the subject.

Brennan, during his hearing, will likely face scrutiny over the practice. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, for example, told reporters he would “pull out all the stops” to get answers about the legality of targeting Americans involved with al Qaeda overseas.

“The public clearly makes an assumption very different from that of the Obama administration or Mr. Brennan: the public thinks targeting American citizens abroad is out of bounds,” said Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and analyst for PublicMind.

Support or opposition to the legality of drone attacks on Americans also does not vary by party lines, according to the poll. Republicans, Democrats or independents are just as likely to say it or is not legal. Non-whites, however, are more likely than whites–57% to 44%–to consider it illegal to target American citizens abroad, according to the survey.

Brennan forcefully stood by the U.S. drone campaign during an April address at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, saying the government acts fully within the law “in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and save American lives.”

His comments, however, did not specifically address American citizens abroad.

“President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow,” he said. “And not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians.”

Brennan also revealed that there are disagreements over use of the program within the administration — but he added that the nation is at war.

“If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven’t struggled with this, then they haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain involved in counterterrorism.”

The Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll was conducted by telephone from December 10 through December 16 with 814 registered voters. The sampling error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

CNN’s Paul Steinhauser, Barbara Starr and Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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