Interview: Richard A. Clarke


This is an excerpt from an interview published on

In 1999, Richard A. Clarke, the US Counterterrorism Czar for Clinton and Bush, wanted to attach Hellfire missiles to unarmed Predator drones so that he could kill Osama bin Laden. In the months before September 11, Predators set their cameras upon the al Qaeda leader several times, but Tomahawk cruise missiles—then the only option for unmanned strikes—took hours to reach Afghanistan from the launch submarines off the coast of Pakistan. After the attacks, lethal drones were an easy sell.

Thirteen years and four-hundred covert drone strikes later, Clarke has written a thriller about the program for which he admits “some personal responsibility.” Sting of the Drone, Clarke’s third novel and seventh book overall, imagines a presumably not-too-distant future in which the US, entrenched in a “never-ending circle of retaliations” against a global narco-terrorist network with “more money than God,” has extended its drone war to Turkey, the Philippines, and even Austria.

Interview by Arthur Holland Michel

Though Sting of the Drone is a novel, there’s also a sense that it’s an attempt to sway public opinion and even national policy. Would you say that’s a fair analysis?

Not a lot of people who have read it have asked me which side I am on, so if it’s an attempt to sway policy in a particular direction, it’s apparently well camouflaged.

I’ll rephrase the question: Are you frustrated with how things have gone with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for targeted killing, and is the book an attempt to explore some of those frustrations?

Sting CoverThe book is certainly an attempt to explore—I was going to say the both sides, but it’s really the many faceted sides—of the issue. Or issues. I hope, subtly. I hope no one reads this book and says, “Oh, he’s definitely for drones,” or “He’s definitely against drones.” I hope that all the arguments have been aired, not in long soliloquies by the characters but by events in the plot.

President Clinton used to read Tom Clancy thrillers late at night and what he read in those books—even though they were fiction—would influence his opinions and ultimately some of his policies. Is it your hope that members of the Obama administration, or indeed Obama himself, will read Sting of the Drone?

I can attest that the stories about Clinton are true because I was the one who usually ended up with the novel on my desk the next day, with Clinton saying “What if this is true?” or “What are we doing about this—could this really happen?” I don’t know what Barack Obama reads. I’m not sure I’ve seen a story about whether or not he reads this sort of book. I would hope he’d read it. But I suspect that, having done his policy review last year on drone policy, he knows the arguments just as well as I do. I read through his speech on drone policy at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013. It was quite clear to me that he had written large parts of the speech himself and it was a very thoughtful speech that was informed by a long process of reviewing the issues about drones.

What do you think has changed in the year since he gave the speech?

When Obama announced a year ago a new set of rules on the use of drones, we anticipated that there would be far fewer drone attacks, and in fact there have been far fewer. It’s much more difficult now to do what’s called a signature strike, in which you’re going after facility because the facility fits the signature of a terrorist camp. You must now be able to demonstrate that there’s imminent danger of an attack against the United States, not against some other country. Those are high bars to mount, and the result is that there are far fewer attacks happening now.

In Your Government Has Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters (2008), you describe how when you started out as a young man working at the Pentagon, you had the “lofty” goal of preventing unnecessary wars in the future. Do you think that the drone campaign qualifies as such a war?

That the drone campaign qualifies as an unnecessary war?

Yes . . .

No, no. First of all, it’s not a war. It’s the use of a particular type of weapon embedded in a different kind of war. If you think that we’re at war with al Qaeda, which I think would be fair characterization, the drone program is just a weapon. It’s a weapon that was chosen in the belief that it would cause less collateral damage. It would be more precise than any of the alternatives that were available. In the event, it has, nonetheless, created a lot of collateral damage.

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