Many of the articles that appeared in the US press had a celebratory tone and reflected the mood of American officials. Mehsud was, as Washington Post reporters wrote in an August 8 article, “something of an obsession for the CIA.” US officials were proud of the fact that they had finally taken him out and, over the course of several weeks, spoke candidly with journalists. For example, Mehsud’s wife had been “giving her husband a massage” on the balcony before the missile hit, according to a March 21, 2010, Washington Post article.

It is revealing to see when officials are forthcoming. One mission of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command became known during the Bush administration—when officials told journalists these soldiers helped track Saddam Hussein down to his hole in the ground in 2003. Obama administration officials broke their tradition of silence to describe the assault on Mehsud.

This is selective secrecy, and it inhibits the kind of reporting that would help Americans answer a very basic question: Is the drone war working?

“Drones are here to stay,” explained the New Yorker’s Mayer. “So being for or against their use isn’t really where the interesting controversy is at this point. The argument is over who is a legitimate target, how that is decided, what legal framework covers this sort of warfare, and how many innocent lives can be justified as so-called ‘collateral damage’ in a drone strike—morally, legally, and politically.”

Some of the most resourceful reporters in the news business have pushed hard for more access to information about this remote-controlled battle and a few have made some progress. But too often, journalists have settled for only meager morsels to fashion their stories. A more whole-hearted pushback is in order, with top newsrooms banding together, backed by their legal departments, to try to force a more substantive and open public policy debate on whom and how the US decides to kill with the push of a button. 

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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.