In the spring of 2009, New York Times reporter David Rohde was being held captive by Taliban gunmen in a house in Waziristan, a mountainous region on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan. Aerial drones soared overhead, filling him and his kidnappers with a sense of dread, until one day, he later wrote, “Our nightmare had come to pass.” A drone fired missiles near their house, killing several militants on a road and terrifying people in the area. The house withstood the attack but, Rohde wrote, “the plastic sheeting covering the window hung in tatters.” He learned about the efficiency of the drones on that day and also saw the wrath they incurred: “My captors expressed more hatred for President Obama than for President Bush.”

Rohde is one of the only Americans to see the drones up close: not, it turned out, as a reporter, but as a prisoner. His first-hand perspective on the strike is rare, and the novelty of his reporting underscores the difficulties of covering this new kind of war, a remote-controlled campaign officially denied by the US government that is unfolding in a region where Pakistani officials have forbidden reporters to travel independently.

Journalists are struggling under these challenging circumstances. Even those reporting safely from afar have not succeeded in digging down to basic questions about drone attacks: How are targets chosen? Under what legal authority? How successful are drones in killing enemies and sparing civilians? Are the drones helping win the war against would-be terrorists?

War reporting is one of journalism’s highest callings, and for good reason: citizens need to know if battles are successful, and what the costs are in blood and money. But it is difficult to grasp the new war that Americans are fighting in Pakistan. As described by former US officials who participated, it is conducted not by military generals but by cia officers who are guiding drones from offices in Langley, Virginia, that kill people in a country with which the US is not at war.

“I think this is an issue that we—both as a profession of journalists and the public—have accepted without sufficient debate,” said Washington Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius, who often writes about the CIA and national security issues. “There is something about assassination from ten thousand feet that is more acceptable than it would be from one foot, by the bayonet.”

Indeed, the existence of this large-scale, secretive program that is designed to “neutralize” people has become one of the biggest and least understood stories of the Obama administration. Because it is hard for journalists to bear witness, it is difficult for citizens to get a clear picture of what is being done in their name.

Drone Strikes Ramp Up

President Barack Obama has authorized 193 drone strikes in Pakistan since he took office in 2009, more than four times the number of attacks that President George W. Bush authorized during his two terms, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based public-policy institute.

Unmanned aircraft became part of the US arsenal in the 1990s, as reconnaissance drones recorded images of terrain in the Balkans. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush signed a directive that authorized arming the drones, called Predators, with Hellfire missiles to try to take out terrorism suspects, according to military officials. He later widened the directive to allow strikes against anyone working inside terrorist camps, not just individual suspects.

Today, according to military officials, the United States is running two drone programs: the military is in charge of drones in Afghanistan, where the country is officially at war; the cia, meanwhile, runs the drone program in Pakistan, an ally in the war in Afghanistan. The drone operations in Afghanistan are relatively straightforward and US officials routinely release information about the attacks. In Pakistan, where the CIA is running the show, the situation is different.

Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who published in October 2009 one of the most penetrating stories on targeted killings by drones, said the Predators were “much more than just a breakthrough in technology—they were also a new frontier legally, politically, and morally.” In an e-mail interview, she described an intricate policy behind the secrecy: “It’s not, technically speaking, something that can be done under cover. But when the CIA is asked directly and on the record about its role, it denies having one.”

Tara McKelvey is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War and is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. Research assistance was provided by Jed Bickman of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, which also provided financial support for preparation of this article.