Americans generally support allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate al Qaeda leaders, but opinions are more mixed about whether the CIA should have such a program without first informing Congress.

The most recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted July 22-26, 2009, finds that 60% favor “the CIA having a program that targets al Qaeda leaders for assassination,” while 29% are opposed. But when a separate group of respondents was asked whether they favor the program without first informing Congress, opinion is more evenly divided (48% favor, 42% oppose).

CIA Director Leon Panetta halted such a program in June, though it had never become operational. The Bush administration reportedly started the initiative shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but had kept it secret from Congress.

Majorities of Republicans (77%), independents (57%) and Democrats (53%) favor the CIA having a program to assassinate al Qaeda leaders. Support falls across party lines when the language on failing to inform Congress is added. Even under these circumstances, however, 64% of Republicans favor the program, compared with 43% of Democrats and 42% of independents.

Notably, about as many liberals (55%) as moderates (56%) express support for the CIA having a program that targets al Qaeda leaders for assassination. However, just 32% of liberals say they favor the CIA having such a program without first informing Congress; 61% are opposed. By contrast, moderates’ opinions show far less change; 48% favor the CIA program and 43% oppose it if Congress is not informed.

Among different age groups, there is little difference in opinion on the more general question. Majorities in each group say they favor such a program. But support falls off sharply — from 56% to 36% — among those 65 and older when the wording on congressional notification is added. In other age groups, the numbers supporting the program decrease, but not enough to shift the overall balance of opinion.

About the Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a nationwide sample of 1,506 adults, 18 years of age or older, from July 22-26, 2009 (1,129 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 377 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 114 who had no landline telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. The sampling error that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for Form A and for Form B is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls. View detailed information about our survey methodology at

Q.65FA Do you favor or oppose the CIA having a program that targets al Qaeda leaders for assassination?

60 Favor
29 Oppose
12 Don’t know/Refused (VOL.)

Q.66FB Do you favor or oppose the CIA having a program that targets al Qaeda leaders for assassination without first informing Congress about it?

48 Favor
42 Oppose
10 Don’t know/Refused (VOL.)