Reading Between the Targeted Killings

Richard Clarke's new thriller about the U.S. drone program hits surprisingly close to home. But is the administration insider a critic of Obama's war on terror?

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2014.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

There's a timeworn tradition for writing a book in Washington: A political official spends a few years in office, then writes a score-settling tell-all. It's a rite of passage for policymakers moving on to their next careers.

There’s a timeworn tradition for writing a book in Washington: A political official spends a few years in office, then writes a score-settling tell-all. It’s a rite of passage for policymakers moving on to their next careers.

Richard Clarke wrote that book 10 years ago, after leaving a two-decade career in counterterrorism that spanned the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, through the development of cybersecurity, to the response to the September 11th attacks. He hasn’t stopped writing since. But in addition to his two acerbic non-fiction accounts of his national security career — 2004’s Against All Enemies and 2008’s Your Government Failed You — and his second career in consulting (another D.C. tradition), Clarke is breaking the Washington model with a side career writing thrillers.

His latest, Sting of the Drone, released May 13, is a fictional take on the U.S. targeted killing program. He knows the program better than most: He helped establish it. His new book is a fraught mix of fact and fiction made more credible by his career. It is certain to influence its readers, but less certain is whether it will influence them how Clarke intends.

"You’re going to have the option of describing things that aren’t true — it’s the beauty of fiction," Clarke told Foreign Policy in an interview last month in the K Street offices of Good Harbor Consulting, where he is chairman and CEO. "But you can sometimes do that to drive home a point that, if you stay entirely close to reality, the point gets lost, or the point gets muted."

That’s been clear from the start. His first foray into fiction in 2005, The Scorpion’s Gate, about the rush to invade a fictionalized oil-rich Middle Eastern country called Islamyah, carried the tagline, "Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction," on its cover. After that came his 2007 cyberthriller, Breakpoint, in which terrorists try to sever U.S. Internet connections to the rest of the world. And now, with Sting of the Drone, Clarke brings America’s unmanned program of targeted killing home.

The plot swerves from the office of the national security advisor to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, from which much of the U.S. drone fleet is remotely piloted, to the mountains of Pakistan — as a combination of the NSC, CIA, and U.S. Air Force try to stop a plot to attack U.S. subway systems and pick off Air Force pilots at home. The villains are al Qaeda-backed hired guns, a rogues’ gallery that includes the "Qazzanis," a why-even-bother-changing-the-name stand-in for the Haqqani network, and a collection of Ukrainian hackers-for-rent who develop technology to commandeer U.S. drones in flight over Pakistan. (Incidentally, the new plot of the recently resurrected TV show 24 also concerns terrorists gaining remote access to U.S. drones.) As the United States tries to stop the attacks, the book veers into outlandish spy-thriller campiness — in a particularly egregious moment early in the book, the national security advisor authorizes a drone strike on a luxury hotel in Vienna, Austria — but other parts, especially the scenes at the White House or Creech, feel grounded in Clarke’s experience.

That makes "fiction" a slightly odd category for librarians looking for shelf space. Cover blurbs tout its fidelity to fact: It is "the best unclassified peek you will ever get on the new high-tech offensive in the war against terrorism," claims one; another calls Sting of the Drone a "docu-thriller." The technology, events, and even some of the characters are thinly-veiled representations of real-world analogues. There’s the situation room meeting with an undersecretary who "might be the first female secretary of defense in a few years" and a legal counsel who is notably "the only person of color at the table." If the dog whistles are hard to miss, they’re incidental, Clarke claims.

When asked about the allusions he makes to specific people with whom he worked, he smiles and shrugs. "I wanted people to feel like they’ve been in the meeting, an actual kill committee meeting, so I wanted to get the kind of personalities that typically are in certain positions," he told FP. "I think bureaucracies, agencies, departments tend to have personalities themselves that spill over into the people that work there. If you’ve worked in a department or agency for 20 years, its personality has imprinted itself on you."

Clarke is hardly the first administration insider to take the impression left by government and adapt it to fiction. For decades, the thriller genre has been a second home to intelligence veterans — though the transition is more common in Britain than the United States. "Ian Fleming is probably the best known, although of course he would not have been publicly associated with issues with which he was involved while working in Naval Intelligence," Kelly Greenhill, a professor at Tufts University currently writing a book on the influence of fiction in national security, told FP by email. David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name, John LeCarré, was working for MI6 when he wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. Decades later, that novel inspired Joseph Weisberg to join the CIA, where he worked for four years before leaving to publish a novel, An Ordinary Spy; he’s now the executive producer of the TV show The Americans, set in the dog days of the Cold War. And it’s not just mid-level spooks who turn to writing: Stella Rimington, the first public director general of MI5, has written a half-dozen thrillers over the past decade.

Their work is made more compelling by the depth of their knowledge — Clarke pointed to Red Sparrow, the debut novel by Jason Matthews, who spent three decades working for the CIA, as one of the best books he’s read recently, along with consummate D.C. insider and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’s forthcoming thriller The Director. They stand out, Clarke says. "I don’t want to criticize, but there’s
a whole bunch of other authors in the thriller genre who haven’t a clue about what the truth is in these things."

And Sting of the Drone is first and foremost a thriller, he said. "I want people who enjoy thrillers to enjoy this book as a thriller, because it will fail if that’s not true…. So that’s the first goal." But he also stressed that he wrote the book with a point in mind. "The second goal is for people to see both sides of the issue, or all sides of the issue."

* * *

"What you want to do, I think, with fiction is … write in large colorful letters so you really drive home a point," says Clarke.

What the point of Sting of the Drone is, though, never really becomes clear. Part of that is because the book’s perspective is largely limited to a set of U.S. government officials who believe — and frequently say throughout the book — that drones are "all we got," or "the only thing that they [the CIA] have that works," or "still the only game in town." Arguments against the targeted killing program are given short shrift.

For the most part, the opposition to the drone program in the book is limited to Bryce Duggan, a naïve, ruggedly handsome, globe-trotting journalist chasing down drone stories — from interviewing survivors in Yemen to being tipped off about hijacked drones in Pakistan. Clarke never misses an opportunity to undermine the character; the barbs range from subtle asides (he finds the taste of whisky served neat too strong for his taste) to unethical conduct (he buys access to al Qaeda sources). "You see, you report in color, but it’s a world of grays," a patronizing NSC official tells Duggan at one point.

Those grays encompass an expansive vision of the U.S. drone program’s not-too-distant future. In reality, U.S. drone strikes are believed to have killed up to 3,800 individuals in six countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen). In the book, drone operators conduct strikes in Austria, the Red Sea, and Mali and hint at operations in Algeria, Chad, and the Philippines. In one scene, an armed reconnaissance drone is routed away from patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border. And it’s not just Predators and Reapers, either. Clarke describes a half-dozen other just-over-the-horizon drones, including advanced technologies that will allow drones to loiter for days at a time over targets or operate with complete autonomy.

He also describes real organizations: "The UN has created a Special Rapporteur, whatever the fuck that is, to keep an eye on our use of drones," a U.S. official complains at one point. There’s the lawsuit, a clear nod to the suit filed by the Awlaki family over the deaths of U.S. citizens in drone strikes in Yemen, which was dismissed in 2013. And then there are the "signature" strikes — authorized based on observed patterns of activity rather than hard intelligence on particular terrorist subjects — depicted in the book, many of which have clear real-world precedents that Clarke says he was mindful of while writing.

Clarke says he isn’t concerned about conflating fact and fiction in the book. "I think readers who are really concerned will try to figure out which is which, and they can probably do that by spending two minutes on Google," he told FP.

If that seems like an unreasonable expectation for his readership, that’s because it is, say critics.

"Most people don’t have the time or inclination to spend their time parsing the difference between what’s real and what isn’t in Richard Clarke’s book, Zero Dark Thirty, or any other piece of spy-themed entertainment," Amy Zegart told FP by email. Zegart is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and has studied the effect of "spytainment" shows like 24 and Homeland on popular opinion. "And that confusion matters…. Polling data shows that spytainment is distorting our view of what’s real and what’s morally right — in statistically significant ways."

Sting of the Drone has all the characteristics of fiction that leaves a lasting impression. "Sticky ideas" — those that last and influence the people who hear them — "tend to be both simple and surprising, concrete, yet emotive, and presented in the form of a story," Tufts’s Greenhill explains. There’s a century’s worth of historical precedents for fiction influencing national security, notes Greenhill, spanning from the pre-World War I "invasion literature genre" which convinced the British public that a German invasion was not only possible but imminent, through the 1983 TV miniseries The Day After that Reagan said influenced the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, to the spytainment cornucopia of the past decade. Stories that are introduced in times of national security threats are all the more likely to find a wider audience. For example, Greenhill says, "a story about terrorist threats in the post-9/11 world."

The book is "an oversimplification," Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and former special advisor to the U.N. Special Rapporteur cited in the book, told FP by phone. Sting of the Drone, she said, "will end up being part of a pop culture conversation" — along with the blockbuster drone allegory Captain America: Winter Soldier and the new season of 24 — in which counterterrorism policies as increasingly portrayed as "bleaker, more morally fraught."

That conversation is complicated by the blurring of fact and fiction. "Creative license is a wonderful thing, but when we’re talking about real, current, and controversial intelligence programs that get at the heart of whether Americans put public trust in secret agencies, creative license should come with some responsibility," Zegart writes. "It’s not a stretch to ask: How can we have a responsible public debate about critical intelligence issues when the public can’t tell fact from fiction?"

* * *

Even in Sting of the Drone‘s third act, as the story becomes more Hollywood blockbuster than Washington thriller, the book seems to be trying to make a point. Even with all the capabilities of the vast U.S. counterterrorism community, the United States remains vulnerable to attack — indeed, Clarke kills off a surprising number of his characters. And yet drones, his characters argue over and over again, are the only effective tools the United States has to combat this terrorist menace.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about the book: In talking to Clarke, he doesn’t seem entirely convinced by his characters’ frequent defenses of the drone program.

Towards the beginning of our interview, Clarke explained that "I
would like, at the end of the day, the reader to say, ‘OK, I had fun reading that book, but what’s Clarke’s position on drones?’ And not know." As our conversation ended 40 minutes later, I still didn’t feel like I understood his position on drones. But had Clarke written a non-fiction book about drones, it seems that it would have been very different.

"There’s a tendency sometimes to do drone strikes because they’re so low risk, and a lot of instances where there have been drones where you could have done a bin Laden-style raid," Clarke said. "The thing about the drones, and the seduction of the drone, is that the whole operation can go sideways on you and no American dies."

That seduction makes drone strikes the easy answer to a lot of difficult questions. A strike can be prepped in a matter of hours, Clarke noted, as opposed to potentially weeks of training and rehearsals for special operations raids in hostile territory. The flip side of the coin, of course, is evident. Drones are a terrifyingly effective hammer, but as a senior Pakistani intelligence official told the Guardian in 2009, "The problem with the Americans is that the only instrument up their sleeve is the hammer, and they see everything as a nail."

There are costs to this approach — though the heroes of Sting of the Drone are true believers, there are numerous incidents in the book in which intelligence is lost due to a hastily ordered strike. In at least one case, the book describes a bereaved relative of drone target being radicalized by a U.S. airstrike. And yet the protagonists are dismissive of the idea that the strikes could be fueling more terrorism or crossing ethical boundaries. "Do you think I have been putting too much emphasis on the ends and playing a little too loose with the means?" an NSC officer asks at one point. "I think we are pretty well still inside the Good Zone," his associate replies. But Clarke seems more ambivalent.

"That’s one of the things I’d like people to see," Clarke told me. "When you go down this kind of path, whether it’s interrogations or NSA warrantless wiretapping, or drones, you start down the path and say you’re going to limit your activities and you’re going to do it within some strictures, and then there are temptations. And sometimes, at least in history, governments, or people in governments succumb to the temptations that, well, you know, if we cover this little mistake up, then we can save the program and the program has some great value. Or if we just step out of the rules a little, we’ll save lives, or at least we think we will."

Part of that stems from the way the drone program is divided between multiple organizations. "What I found in the White House, in three different administrations, was departments and agencies have their own interests — regardless of what administration you’re talking about, regardless of who the secretary of that department is — and if you add up all of the interests of all of those departments and agencies, it doesn’t equal the national interest," Clarke said. "Once you break the code and you realize that, you quickly come to the conclusion: It’s the White House guy’s role to make sure that we’re doing what’s in the national interest."

Sting of the Drone, Clarke said, was partly an effort to illustrate an operational — not a moral — equivalency between terrorist operations and the U.S. response. "Very often, the things that you do to stop terrorism exacerbate a situation and bring the target back to you. And that’s the nature of the business. It’s a very delicate balance and when you’re in the tunnel vision of the bunker, of counterterrorism; it’s difficult for that operator to see when that point is being reached. So it needs some sort of policymaker, above the operator, and above the policy operator, some higher level, that can say, ‘I think we’re being counterproductive,’ or ‘I think we’re adopting some of the very qualities of the people we’re against.’"

He pointed to a scene in the book in which the national security advisor halts all signature strikes. He "just ropes the program in," Clarke said, describing the scene. Then he paused and shrugged. "Maybe he’s doing it because he thinks it’s gone too far."

When asked if the drone program needs reform, though, Clarke deflected, saying the question is really a matter of when targeted killing is appropriate. "Under what circumstances are you willing to use lethal force? What risks are you willing to run, and what safeguards are you willing to impose on the use of lethal force?" he asked rhetorically.

His comments reminded me of a moment in the book in which an NSC official is having an off-the-record conversation with Duggan, the naïve journalist, and quotes the classic House of Cards non-affirmation affirmation: "As an old British TV show character used to say, ‘You might think that. I could not possibly comment.’" It’s a good line: the epitome of saying something while pretending to say nothing. If only Richard Clarke would be so blunt.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article has accepted a job at National Security Network (NSN). Clarke is a member of NSN’s board of advisors.

J. Dana Stuster was an assistant editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2014. Twitter: @jdanastuster

More from Foreign Policy

The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.
The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose

Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.

The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy

The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.

Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.

Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.
U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.

Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet

As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.