May 23, 2014

In the decade I have been covering terrorism, the plot that seemed to inspire the most derision was one that involved some model airplanes and a Northeastern University graduate named Rezwan Ferdaus. Ferdaus planned to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol with radio-controlled planes filled with C-4 explosives. The FBI arrested him before any of his flights got off the ground, and in 2012 he pleaded guilty to two terrorism charges. In the end, he was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

The joke making the rounds at the time was that the only things the tiny model planes could have destroyed were tiny models of the Pentagon and the Capitol. But terrorism expert Richard Clarke, in his latest novel, “Sting of the Drone,” will make naysayers reassess the model-plane attack.

“At first it seemed like the B-52 was some distance away,” Clarke writes, as terrorists begin to take their revenge on the people involved with the drone program in the United States. “But her brain quickly flashed to the conclusion that it was just outside the window, a miniature B-52. In the nanosecond that her conscious mind understood what was happening, she saw a metal rod extending from the nose of the aircraft smash through the floor-to-ceiling glass window. As glass crashed into her suite, the B-52 erupted into a fireball that chased the glass inside, flash-burning everything in the room.”

“Sting of the Drone” explores a premise that members of the intelligence community have been kicking around for years: What would happen if the targets on the receiving end of a killer drone decided to strike back? “Flies can be swatted. Men can be killed,” a powerful tribal leader tells a terrorist plotter named Ghazi, who lost his father in a drone attack. “These drones can be stopped. Ghazi, I want you to do this. You will understand how and I will give you all that you need.”

Ghazi manages to assemble a terrorist dream team that includes not just a Pakistani clan that lives under the constant threat of drones in the tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan (a thinly veiled version of the Haqqani network), but also two Ukrainian hackers and various al-Qaeda sympathizers already living in the United States. Ghazi’s plot: to hack into the guidance systems of the Predator drones and turn them against the very people who fly them. The premise is not so far-fetched: Iran claims that it captured a CIA stealth drone in 2011 by spoofing the GPS signals it was receiving. Iranian pilots were able to land it safely in Iran.


‘Sting of the Drone’ by Richard A. Clarke (Thomas Dunne )

Clearly, Clarke is borrowing from real life. In fact, as you read “Sting of the Drone” you get the sense that it isn’t fiction at all. Clarke has written a classic in the genre of what is known as insider fiction — a novel or, more often, a thriller inspired by real episodes to which government officials were privvy when they were working their day jobs.

Former CIA case officer Robert Baer (on whom the film “Syriana” is based) is probably the best known in this genre. He tried his hand at fiction in 2006 with a book about an alternate 9/11 scenario called “Blow the House Down.”

Three years later, Nicolle Wallace, formerly of the George W. Bush White House and Sen. John McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, wrote “Eighteen Acres,” about the first female president.

Those fiction efforts — and a roster of titles from FBI agents turned novelists — have had little impact on the American literary canon. Rather, these books are successful when readers are left asking, “Could this really happen?”

Clarke’s book, for its part, reads like a typical fast-paced thriller: It switches back and forth between discussions at the White House and terrorist meetings in the desert, and captures the banter between military officials and bureaucrats at the Creech Air Force base outside Las Vegas, where the drone pilots are based. The jump-cuts will feel familiar to anyone who buys Bond-like books at the airport. But where “Sting of the Drone” stands above the rest, and what makes it important for those who have a tendency to shy away from this genre, is in its level of detail.

In Clarke’s hands, readers are taken through the entire bureaucratic process that governs the drone program. He writes about secure conference calls by a Kill Committee, in which officials from the Defense, State and Justice departments discuss targets and weigh the pros and cons of pulling the trigger. (We know that the Obama administration uses a version of this committee, and we may learn more about the legal justification of targeted killing soon, as the administration just announced that it will comply with a court order to release a crucial memo related to the operations.)

Clarke writes about mistakes, judgment calls and the terrorists’ adaptations as they begin to piece together America’s rules of engagement. This, too, has been occasionally alluded to in the headlines. As a result, all this is riveting reading. There is also some rich detail to be gleaned about the drones themselves. Clarke discusses their ability to follow targets for hours (which we knew) and how the bottom of the aircraft can be programmed electronically to take on the color of the sky — blue on sunny days, grey on cloudy ones — which, if true, most of us didn’t know. These kinds of tidbits make it necessary for readers to remind themselves that this is fiction — or at least is billed as such.

Clarke is better known as the author of the 2004 nonfiction bestseller “Against All Enemies,” in which, among other things, he says President George W. Bush asked him about Iraq’s role in the 9/11 attacks while the towers were still smoldering.

The only thing that detracts from “Sting of the Drone” is what ails the insider genre more generally — the writing style. Clarke still needs to develop his voice and those of his characters. The men and women in the book sound the same. The dialogue is often hobbled by lame jokes and sexual innuendoes that sometimes fall flat.

In one especially egregious example, one of the directors of the drone program walks into his wife’s office and confuses the receptionist when he says: “Tell her Mustang is here. . . . Go ahead. Ask her if she wants to ride a Mustang.” The receptionist is so uncomfortable that she can only tell the wife that a man named Mustang is there and he won’t go away. And the wife replies: “Oh dear. . . . Well, then ask him if I can ride him.”

These kinds of clunkers, however, are more than offset by the meaty morsels about the secretive drone program.

One also has to wonder how much of this book is a Washington confessional. Clarke, who served three presidents as a terrorism czar, bears some responsibility for the decision to use drones against terrorists in the first place. In 2000, he wanted to deploy Predator drones, unarmed at the time, to fly over Afghanistan to help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

On its fourth flight, Clarke says in an author’s note, the Predator located the al-Qaeda leader. Clarke says he pushed to have the drones armed. The CIA and the Defense Department opposed it, he contends.

“Finally, on September 4, 2001, the Principals’ Committee met in the White House Situation Room,” Clarke writes in his note at the end of the book. “CIA Director George Tenet and the DOD leadership both spoke out against the use of armed Predators to get bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. They were not overruled. A week later we were attacked.”

Dina Temple-Raston , NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent, has spent the past year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard studying the intersection of big data and intelligence. She has written four books and will return to NPR in June.

STING OF THE DRONE

By Richard A. Clarke

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

294 pp. $25.99