“It was just a scene of devastation,” he recalled in an interview. He spoke with people who lived in the area about the assault, and through his reporting on this and other strikes, American readers were able to get a rare glimpse of how the war was unfolding in Waziristan.

Shah, thirty-three, was taken captive by the Taliban in 2008 and released after the intervention of a local tribal leader. He is no longer pursuing risky stories. Instead, he will join Harvard in the fall as a Nieman fellow.

Selective Secrecy

Three days after Obama was sworn in as president, his administration launched its first drone strike, according to numerous news reports. A missile reportedly hit a house in Koresh Kot, a village in South Waziristan that was believed to be a Taliban hideout.

News accounts of the incident had few, and conflicting, details, underscoring the difficulty of getting basic facts. A January 23 article on Pakistan’s Geo News website said the attack was “reported to have killed 10 people,” but did not identify them. A January 23 New York Times article reported that the missile strike killed seven, including three children, citing Pakistani news reports. The story added, “American officials in Washington said there were no immediate signs that the strikes on Friday had killed any senior Qaeda leaders. They said the attacks had dispelled for the moment any notion that Mr. Obama would rein in the Predator attacks.”

A January 24 Washington Post story cast the incident in a somewhat celebratory tone, saying it was “the first tangible sign of President Obama’s commitment to sustained military pressure on the terrorist groups.”

The news articles mentioned only briefly the most disturbing part of the story: the drone struck the wrong target. Rather than being a militant, the homeowner had been a tribal elder who had attempted to organize a peace movement and was just the kind of person that CIA operatives had been hoping to encourage in their efforts to fight extremism. The supposed Taliban hideout was actually an eight-bedroom house that had cost $21,000 to build, a fortune in a country where the average annual income is roughly $500. The deaths of the father and others, along with the property destruction, left the family, including an eighteen-year-old son, destitute. The teenager called for revenge.

Those details were not gathered by reporters, but rather by a human-rights investigator, Chris Rogers, who was working with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. His report, released months after the attack, shone a spotlight on the fact that civilians were killed in the assault. Rogers explained in an interview in Washington that he got the information by traveling to Peshawar, where he met with members of the homeowner’s family. Their accounts were supported by Pakistani government documents.

Journalists know that finding non-official sources is crucial in covering the drone war, especially under the tight-lipped Obama administration. “The only time I’m allowed to talk to senior staff or the nsc is for stories that make the administration look good,” McClatchy’s Landay said.

According to a survey of selected publications conducted by CJR, there were eighty stories about Pakistan drone strikes in major media outlets that regularly cover international news in the first three months of the Obama administration, when no “high-value” Taliban or al Qaeda figures were killed but at least 115 others died. But in the three-month period starting that summer, when a drone strike killed a Taliban commander, 136 stories appeared—68 percent more than in the earlier period (see graphic, page 45). Because reporters could only get sketchy information about the early strikes, they received little coverage. But when the commander was targeted and killed, the dire need for secrecy melted away.

At about 1 a.m. on August 5, 2009, a missile struck a villa in South Waziristan, while a Taliban commander named Baitullah Mehsud was resting on a balcony alongside his wife. He suffered from diabetes, and a medical practitioner was administering an intravenous drip to him, “according to two Taliban fighters reached by telephone on Friday,” an August 8 New York Times article reported.

A Pakistani official quoted in the story, who had seen a video of the assault, described what happened after the missile landed: “His torso remained, while half of the body was blown up.” Mehsud was killed, along with his wife, the owner of the house, and others. Three children were also injured.

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.