- - Friday, August 1, 2014


By Richard A. Clarke
St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 294 pages

Just as all healthy food doesn’t taste like weeds, and dental appointments don’t always hurt, no law forbids a techno-thriller from being a novel of ideas. So be it with “Sting of the Drone,” a lucid page-turner that makes its provocative points as inconspicuously as a cooking pot can hide a shrapnel bomb.

Like every thriller worth the name, this is driven by plot: point-and-counterpoint between good guys and bad guys, between them and us. It opens as drug merchants meet secretly with terrorists high in the Hindu Kush, where our drone sniffs them out and delivers their just deserts — all this by Page 8, when the drone’s “pilot” fires the fatal missile from 7,500 miles away sitting at a console in Nevada.

Even then, the big idea lurks like a sleeper cell, making its presence felt more than seen until it explodes on Page 144. There, halfway through the book, a computer genius with a screwball name parses a cyberpuzzle for a skeptical colleague trying to prevent another Sept. 11, 2001. Dugout declares: “This is not a static environment . It’s more like classic two-player game theory [e.g., a chess match]. We each learn about the other’s behavior and adjust . See, [it’s all] action and reaction.”

Herein lies the fundamental rule of all politics and international affairs, as universal as Newton’s third law of motion, yet a fact of life commonly ignored by satraps seeking quick fixes, and press aides answering questions with sound bites, and politicians pontificating in platitudes. Rule: The world is dynamic; everything changes, constantly. With each action by one party, the other faces a changed situation and responds, changing the new reality anew. Corollary: Old solutions don’t fit new situations. Corollary: He who doesn’t adapt loses. Corollary: Whoever underestimates his enemy pays.

This undeclarable war changes with every escalation by either side, ours or theirs, the better or the worse. Gadgets manifest the changes: a laser that eavesdrops through windows, a thumb drive that disables a gas pedal, and drones that come in all sizes. Drones with night vision; invisible drones with chameleon undersides that mimic the changing sky’s color; drones that explode and leave no trace of themselves. There are drones that launch drones, and drones that fight back, and drones resembling the remote-controlled model airplanes that Boy Scouts once built to earn merit badges.

The action leapfrogs from eastern Afghanistan to the West Wing, to Vienna, Boston, Kiev, Las Vegas. The actors are harlequin: zealots, bureaucrats, engineers, aviators, a fastidious Muslim who plots carnage in our subways, a pushy American beauty who tele-kills. The author, Richard A. Clarke, knows his onions and slices enough of them to make the reader’s eyes burn. Famously, he was a counterterrorism and cybersecurity adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The areas of expertise he displays here include electronics, weaponry, Washington’s counterterrorist carnival and the terrorists’ multiverse.

I trust him about these arcane realms because he gets the details right about places I know — that the OSS was born on “Navy Hill” in Foggy Bottom and that Shirlington’s Weenie Beenie is the default fast-food joint for WETA staffers. He also writes about some familiar things as we would prefer them: When the president’s mouthpiece crosses the Potomac for a live interview, the newsman is a skilled questioner who doesn’t let him evade questions with charm and bluster.

One blurb says Mr. Clarke does for drones “what Tom Clancy did for submarines,” but no one ever accused Tom Clancy of writing with grace and subtlety. Mr. Clarke directs his characters with clarity, nuance and something approaching empathy. (Even his sex scenes are persuasive, erotic without vulgarity.) His people have diverse political and moral convictions, and in articulating them, they illuminate some of the national dilemmas that we have foisted on ourselves.

For one, a psychiatrist explains to an Air Force commander that drone crews inevitably have mental problems. “Trouble is, you got a bunch of your young pilots who spent their high school years killing pretend people on the computer games.” Now their joysticks are wreaking death 12 time zones away and they must “constantly remind themselves that this is not a game. And they’re not supposed to go home and talk about it.”

For another, a patriotic and responsible member of Congress challenges a patriotic and responsible witness, member of the secret “Kill Committee” that identifies human targets and orders them liquidated and says, “Think about what our attitude will be when other nations do this. What would we think about a North Korean drone killing someone in Seoul or a Chinese drone killing a Chinese dissident in San Francisco?”

People in “Sting of the Drone” ask hard questions and make lethal decisions that have unpredictable consequences. Good guys do some bad things, and some bad guys make good sense. Like that pressure cooker packed with shrapnel, the book packs a real wallop.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Bethesda, writes about history and culture.

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