Richard A. Clarke on drones: “I’m not even sure 20 years from now we’ll have fighter pilots”

Salon spoke to the "Sting of the Drone" thriller author and counterterrorism expert about the battle in the skies

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Richard A. Clarke on drones: "I’m not even sure 20 years from now we’ll have fighter pilots"Richard Clarke (Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Richard Clarke is feeling liberated. After all, with his new book, “Sting of the Drone,” he didn’t have to rely on research.

The former U.S. head of counterterrorism made waves in 2004, after he left the Bush administration, with his book “Against All Enemies,” an analysis of failures in the anti-terrorist infrastructure leading up to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, he’s been a commentator on national security, and now a novelist who’s produced a debut thriller about U.S. drone policy. He told Salon that he was relieved not to have to employ research assistants: “Fiction you write alone, and if it isn’t entirely accurate — that’s fine!”

Still, Clarke’s knowledge of drones comes firsthand: As he’s detailed in a 2012 Op-Ed as well as in an afterword to his own book, he was involved in drones’ early development in the 2000s.  He’s still not entirely opposed to their use — and thinks America would be behind them had they been rolled out differently. “We’ve all been told there’ll be the rise of the machines and now we see something that looks like it fits that narrative.”

Clarke discussed his writing process, the future of drones and what our next president ought to do on the world stage.

Did you write this book solely for entertainment value, or was there a message you were hoping to impart?

My primary goal was to write a thriller. There are obviously political messages in there, and different characters have different views. But if I had written a nonfiction book about drones, I think maybe five people would read it, right?


I enjoy writing thrillers. I enjoy reading thrillers. If you can do it, a good thriller, a page-turner, and learn things along the way, that’s great and that’s what I set out to do — hopefully, not heavy-handed or pedantic.

Do you find that writing fiction is challenging?

Uh, no, frankly. I didn’t find it as challenging as writing nonfiction. I’ve written three nonfiction books and I found it harder. Because you have to be very, very careful about your sourcing, if it’s primary or secondary. You have to footnote. It’s more work, and it’s something that you do with research assistants. Fiction you write alone, and if it isn’t entirely accurate — that’s fine!

The characters and situations in this novel are fictional, but it’s not like sci-fi or fantasy. It’s dealing with a real program undertaken by the United States government. Did you feel any extra pressure to be factual or to draw in real figures given the real, and contentious, nature of this issue?

Well, I think it’s a lot easier probably to write science fiction, or to write something that people can’t say, “Oh, that’s not true, I work in that job, I know that job.” But I tried to change reality a little, so that there were no real people. Nobody I know or might come across in Washington would say, that was me, wasn’t it? There’s no attempt there to take a real Washington character and disguise it.

Among certain circles, drones have been extremely controversial. Do you foresee a situation in which the U.S. forsakes drone warfare, or do you foresee a situation in which drone warfare becomes even more prevalent? Which direction do you see it going?

I think the truth is that it becomes much more prevalent. In fact, I’m not even sure 20 years from now we’ll have fighter pilots. Or that we’ll be making airplanes that require fighter pilots. People have said that the current fighter plane, the F-35, which is the only fighter plane they’re making at the moment, is probably the last U.S. manned fighter plane. I’m not sure I’d go that far. But clearly, drones are a lot cheaper. And if you can get 95 percent of the functionality of a fighter plane out of a drone, and it’s less than half the price, then I think you can see where that’s going.

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Does that trouble you at all? Do you think people are right to be concerned?

I think there are going to be a lot of problems in the conversion to drones, not only for fighter planes but for a whole host of other things. They’re going to be replacing helicopters in the traffic helicopter mode, they’re replacing helicopters in the Coast Guard search and rescue mode. There are helicopters now that patrol pipelines for safety purpose; that’s going to be done by drones. I suspect crop dusting is going to be done by drones. And I think there’s a lot of potential for accidents.

What do you think people get wrong when people talk about drones?

Well, I think there’s a dislike of drones almost at the visceral level because we’ve been using them to kill people. It’s like if they’d been introduced widely to our society as handy little helpers, as Roombas, but the first time most Americans learned about drones is when they realized we were using them to kill people. And so the perception in a lot of mines is of the killer robot. And we have a, perhaps because of a generation of movies and science fiction, we have an almost visceral fear of the killer robot. We’ve all been told there’ll be the rise of the machines and now we see something that looks like it fits that narrative. I think there’s a lot of discontent about that possibility.

You’ve written, both at the end of this novel, in an afterword, and in other pieces, about your role in the beginning of the U.S. drone policy. Do you think we’ve crossed some sort of rubicon in the intervening years where drones are no longer morally defensible? Were there any consequences that you didn’t anticipate that you feel badly about?

Well, I find that I’m sympathetic with arguments made on both sides. In the book, it was easy for me to put words in characters’ mouths on both sides of the debate. I understand the validity of what both sides are saying. On the one hand, the counterterrorist sees this as almost the perfect weapon for him. Because it doesn’t put American lives at risk. And the choice, in the real world, the choice for counterterrorism is to use drones or do nothing. Because the United States government hasn’t really developed any other capabilities to deal with terrorists. And I think that’s true today. The national security team looks around to see what’s in its quiver to deal with terrorism, and it pretty much only has drones. So that they use them.

But from the other perspectives, there’s a real addictive quality to the drones. And like with any addiction it might be all right if you have a little of something but when you have too much of it, it becomes counterproductive. And there’s a good case to be made, I think, that that’s what’s happened with the U.S. drone policy. Obama, I think, realized that and last year gave a speech and initiated policies to try to reduce these drones, put new restrictions on them. But even after that, we blow up a wedding in Yemen. Those new policies were never issued.

I imagine there are plenty of people who might read your book who simply don’t know or care about drones. Were you writing with them in mind?

For some of them, yeah, for some of them I wanted to take them into, a little bit into what the real world of drones look like. The [depiction of a] kill committee meeting is fairly accurate, unfortunately, that’s a fairly accurate rendition of what happens. And the fact that we have these pilots, so-called pilots, sitting in darkened rooms outside of Las Vegas, who kill people on the other side of the world, then walk out into the sunlight and get into convertibles and go home to their wives, there’s something incongruous about that. And most Americans haven’t seen that, haven’t watched the “Nova” or the PBS “Frontline” or the “Vice” shows to realize what actually is going on.

In 2004, you came out with “Against All Enemies,” which has heretofore been your most well-known book. And it was a pretty blistering critique of the handling of the war on terror. I wonder how you would rate the Obama administration and its handling of foreign affairs, based on what you know.

Well, I think they’ve done much better than the previous administration, but that’s not saying much. I think Obama used drones when he first took office perhaps excessively. He’s tried. He’s realized that he’s made a mistake, perhaps, and he’s tried to pull it back. My chief concern, however, is not with the kinetic side of his counterterrorism policy but with countering violent extremism, the ideological battle. I don’t think he’s put enough emphasis on that. Any counterterrorism guy will tell you, you can kill terrorists until eternity. You have to go after the ideology. And I’m not sure if enough effort has been done on that.

What do you think could be done?

You have to try to isolate the al-Qaida or Muslim Brotherhood, or whatever it is, ideology in countries where terrorists might be generated. And do that by offering an alternative that’s better. I don’t think we’ve been able to do that in most countries. And if you look at Yemen, look at Somalia, other places where terrorists are growing in strength, Nigeria. The governments there are not a very good alternative.

We don’t know who will be Obama’s successor as a president. But — whether that person is a Republican or a Democrat — what are your major concerns for the next administration, in terms of battling terror worldwide?

Well, you know, I think we’re going to see more and more use of technologies like drones, and we need to know where we want to go, and where we want the red lines to be. And we haven’t had a very explicit discussion in society about that. And I think we should. Whether it’s counterterrorism or domestic use of drones. We need to have a public dialogue. We’re seeing little developments — like how Charlottesville, Virginia, has banned drones from its skies. They had a public debate. They’re a college town and they had a little public debate and decided they didn’t want them, and they banned them. I would like to see a more rational approach to counterterrorism, that recognizes when things that we do are counterproductive. So much of what we did after 9/11, the torture, the warrantless wiretaps, maybe the excessive use of drones, was counterproductive. And we have to be able to admit we made those mistakes and learn from them.

Do you hope that your writing will provoke that debate?

I hope that it will help prompt at least some more public discussion of drones.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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