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Putting A Face Behind The 'Sting Of The Drone'


Few people know the ins and outs of power politics in the nation's capital better than Richard A. Clarke. He served three presidents and as national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, he was instrumental in developing the nation's armed drone program.

In his new thriller, "The Sting of the Drone," Clark uses his insider's knowledge to bring readers right into the boardrooms and bunkers where the decisions to launch a drone attack are made. In creating fictional Air Force pilots who spend their days guiding drones to targets thousands of miles away, Clarke puts a human face on the drone program and also raises some surprising questions about it.

RICHARD CLARKE: These things are actually airplanes that function like fighter planes except they can stay up for a really long time. They can stay up for 24 hours at a time. And as the pilot, you sort of have the sensation that you are in Pakistan. You know, you're looking down. You're seeing everything. But then when your shift is done, you leave the air-conditioned, darkened room and you walk out and you're in Las Vegas.

NEARY: Yeah. Does that seem wrong to you somehow that they can kill people that precisely and then leave it behind so easily?

CLARKE: I don't think it's wrong. I think the prior question is should we be using lethal force to kill terrorists? And if the answer is occasionally yes, then this is a very safe way to do it because the American pilot is not put at risk. It's highly accurate.

Despite that however, there are times when, as in Yemen recently, we blow up a wedding and we kill innocent people. And you get this cycle of revenge killing and revenge killing after that.

NEARY: Well, at one point in the book, there's an attack on a group of targets, as they're called. And they're in a luxury hotel in Vienna. And the drone comes in and blows them up as they're sharing cigars, I think. How plausible is that?

CLARKE: Well, I think that episode is meant to ask the question, what are the limits? Here the drone operators think they can do the attack. They can do it precisely. There will be no collateral damage.

By doing the attack, they stop a big terrorist attack that was going to take place. And the Austrian security authorities wink, wink, nod, nod, and say, go ahead. Just pretend we didn't know about it. There's a lot of truth in that. That happens from time to time. Not drone attacks in Austria, but that sort of thing. And it does ask the question, where are the limits?

NEARY: Of course, in this story, the victims fight back with very serious consequences. And you know, certainly that sets up of dramatic tension in your fictional world. But it seems like you're kind of sending a little bit of a warning out there saying, you know, be aware that this can be used against you. Is this where we're headed in the real world, too?

CLARKE: Well, the FBI has already arrested people in the United States who it alleges were plotting to use mini drones, commercially available model airplane kind of drones, put explosives in them, and attack things like the Pentagon. I think as drones become more and more available around the world - and there are a lot of them now, a lot of countries have them - we probably will face the day when the United States is the target of drones. And then we will have to wonder if this all was worth it.

NEARY: Now you were, of course, involved in developing the drone program for the United States, correct?

CLARKE: I was. I pushed very hard to develop the drone program, to find and to take out Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, that wasn't done in time.

NEARY: So in this book, are you working out some conflicted feelings you might have about where the program's going, where the program is at right now?

CLARKE: I'm trying, in the first instance, to create a thriller that readers will enjoy and to take them behind the curtain to see things that they would never get a chance to see. And at the same time, raise questions that should be asked in every American's minds about, you know, what is it that we're doing? And is this the right thing to do? And what are the risks that we run when we do it?

NEARY: When I first, you know, saw this book, I wondered if it was going to be, you were going to be the next Tom Clancy, writing books about drone warfare in the way he wrote about submarine warfare. But I don't get a sense that there's a series of books here.

CLARKE: Well, there's not a series of books about drones. I'm certainly trying to get that same thriller, page turner effect that you get from the Clancy novels. But I think I've said enough about drones in this book for a while.

NEARY: When all is said and done, do you think that the drone program was worth it, is it worth having - does more good than harm?

CLARKE: I think we used it, perhaps, in excess. The president has tried now with new rules to walk it back. It was a very limited program when it started, designed to kill only high level Al Qaeda leaders and only those in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And now we've used it in at least five countries. And it's caused a great deal of resentment towards the United States in countries like Yemen, like Somalia, like Pakistan.

It's probably too early to judge whether or not the program was counterproductive. It certainly did take out a lot of the Al Qaeda leadership. But it becomes an addiction. It lures you in because it's the only thing that seems to be working in the counterterrorism program. You do more of it and more of it and more of it. And then one day, you wake up and realize you've done too much.

NEARY: Richard A. Clarke's new book is called "Sting of the Drone." Thanks for talking with us.

CLARKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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