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.
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?