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Former Counterterrorism Czar Richard Clarke: U.S. Drone Program Under Obama “Got Out of Hand”

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Richard Clarke served as the nation’s top counterterrorism official under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before resigning in 2003 in protest of the Iraq War. A year before the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke pushed for the Air Force to begin arming drones as part of the U.S. effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden. According to Clarke, the CIA and the Pentagon initially opposed the mission. Then Sept. 11 happened. Two months later, on November 12, 2001, Mohammed Atef, the head of al-Qaeda’s military forces, became the first person killed by a Predator drone. According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, U.S. drones have since killed at least 2,600 people in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Clarke has just written a novel about drone warfare called “Sting of the Drone.” We talk to Clarke about the book and his concerns about President Obama’s escalation of the drone war. “I think the [drone] program got out of hand,” Clarke says. “The excessive secrecy is as counterproductive as some of the strikes are.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a Democracy Now! special today, we spend the hour with Richard Clarke, who served as the nation’s top counterterrorism official under President Clinton and Bush. A year before the September 11th attacks, he pushed for the Air Force to begin arming drones as part of the U.S. effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden. According to Clarke, the CIA and the Pentagon initially opposed the mission.

Then September 11th happened. Two months later, on November 12th, 2001, Mohammed Atef, the head of al-Qaeda’s military forces, became the first person killed by a Predator drone. Since then, U.S. drones have killed at least 2,000 people in at least five countries—in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Richard Clarke has just written a novel about drone warfare, titled Sting of the Drone. Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté and I interviewed Richard Clarke last week. He joined us from Washington, D.C. I started by asking him to describe the plot of his novel.

RICHARD CLARKE: It was very incongruous that the American pilots who are flying over the Swat Valley in Pakistan are actually in Las Vegas, or just outside of Las Vegas in Creech Air Force Base. And I tried to imagine and actually did some research into what it was like for those pilots. They work in darkened rooms, darkened, air-conditioned rooms. And they work at night, because they are trying to fly their planes over Pakistan and Afghanistan in the daylight, and so, because of the time shift, they’re on a night shift in local time. But they fly for hours on end. They can fly an eight-hour shift. They can fly even longer. And that entire time, they’re looking at a screen shot, a live screen shot of an area in Pakistan or Afghanistan. And they think they’re there. They get into it. They think they’re flying over Pakistan. They’re all trained pilots. They’re all people who actually know how to fly fighter planes and have flown them in the past. And most days, they do nothing except reconnaissance. But some days, they actually do a strike and kill people. And then they get up and walk out from this darkened, air-conditioned room into Nevada. They get in their sports cars and perhaps drive down the road to Las Vegas. It’s a very incongruous sort of war. It looks a lot like playing a computer game. And it has to change the way they think about things. I think they have to really work at realizing that they’re killing people, that these are real people, this is not a video game. But it’s very hard for them to realize that when they go home to their nice ranch houses outside of Las Vegas. So I wanted to capture that.

I also wanted to capture the notion that the people who are the repeated targets of the drones might fight back against the drone program. And if they did that intelligently, using all of the techniques and tricks, political propaganda, intelligence—cyber, military, terrorist—what would that look like? And could that include coming to the United States and hunting down the pilots who live in Las Vegas? So that’s—I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but that’s the premise.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you choose to write this book as a novel? Why did you write Sting of the Drone?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, Amy, I thought if I had written a sort of polemical nonfiction work that provided the history but also provided my opinions in clear form, that would reach a very limited audience. But I thought that if I could write it in a thriller format, if I could succeed in channeling Tom Clancy, then it would appeal to a broader audience that would just not pick it up if they thought it was a screed against drones. So I wanted people to read it for enjoyment, but in the process of doing that, to cause them to think and to cause them to learn, not with a heavy hand, but subtly enough that they would buy it, they would like it, they would recommend it to their friends. But in the process, maybe it would open their minds to some issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Think about what? You said “cause them to think.” What are you most concerned about? You are a chief architect of the U.S. drone program.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, I’m not sure I’d accept that title. What is true, and I outline in the author’s note at the end of the book, is that under President Clinton and briefly under President Bush, I was in charge of counterterrorism. And it became very clear to us that al-Qaeda was trying to kill Americans—they did kill Americans—and that they were looking to do it in a big way. And we asked the Justice Department, the FBI, the military to try to get this guy. And our goal, initially, was to get him and bring him back to the United States and to try him in a court in the United States, as we had with so many other terrorists—successfully, I might add. But they couldn’t do it.

And so, the question arose: If we can’t get him, if we can’t arrest him, is there anything we can do to stop him? And one of the questions was: Could we do something other than just throw cruise missiles into Afghanistan, as had been done in the past with no real success? Was there some way that we could have a very precise weapon where we would know that we were attacking him and very few other people and that there would be very limited collateral damage? And that was the program I tried to create. I was unsuccessful in creating it.

And then after 9/11, everybody who had opposed it then said they were in favor of it. I was never the architect of what happened after that. What happened after that, as you say, is probably 2,500 people got killed in five countries. And that program is, I think, pretty obviously counterproductive. And it’s that that I’d like people to think about.

AARON MATÉ: So, is this a problem then of scale? Has the drone program just grown too big? Now, you have President Obama vowing to reform the drone program. Where is the middle ground, in your eyes?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, I think the first question you have to ask yourself, first threshold, is: Are you willing to use lethal force against a terrorist based on what you believe is evidence or intelligence that he’s about to kill Americans? Is it just and fair and good policy to get them before they get us? I answered that question yes in the case of bin Laden. I was very confident that he was trying to kill large numbers of people, including large numbers of Americans, and there was no way I could stop him short of a lethal attack.

So having answered that question yes, then the question is: Well, if you’re going to get him, who else can you get? Who else can you have that same justification for? And I think what happened—and it happened largely under President Obama—was that the aperture got very, very broad, and not only were they targeting people whose names they knew, but they were targeting people whose names they didn’t know. They were targeting people in so-called signature strikes, when a place looked like a terrorist camp, and they were able, after looking at that place for days on end, to satisfy themselves that it was a terrorist camp. Then they attacked that camp without knowing, frankly, the names of the people who were there. And the result was collateral damage. We don’t know how much. There are widely varying estimates of the number of innocent people who have been killed in each of these countries. But we do know that innocent people were killed, as recently as the attack in Yemen at the end of last year that blew up a wedding.

And, you know, when you do things like that, you cause enemies for the United States that will last for generations. All of these innocent people that you kill have brothers and sisters and tribe—tribal relations. Many of them were not opposed to the United States prior to some one of their friends or relatives being killed. And then, sometimes, they cross over, not only to being opposed to the United States, but by being willing to pick up arms and become a terrorist against the United States. So you may actually be creating terrorists, rather than eliminating them, by using this program in the wrong way.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your estimates, your best estimate, of how many innocent civilians have been killed? You say roughly 2,500 people have been killed in five countries. There’s the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Human Rights Watch, the Stanford-NYU study. They say hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent civilians have been killed. What do you think it is, Richard Clarke?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, it’s clearly not thousands, but I don’t think any of the—I’ve looked at most of those studies, and I don’t think any of them are systematic enough and the sources are good enough to put a number on it. It’s clearly too many.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say clearly hundreds?

RICHARD CLARKE: I don’t—I don’t know hundreds. It’s very difficult for me to know without access to the intelligence, which, frankly, I don’t have anymore. John Brennan, who replaced me, a couple removed, in the White House, at one point said there were none, which I found laughable. No program has none.

AMY GOODMAN: John Brennan is now head of the Central Intelligence Agency. In a minute, we’ll continue with Richard Clarke, who served as the nation’s top counterterrorism official under President Clinton and Bush. In the last segment of today’s show, we ask Clarke if President Bush should be tried for war crimes. Clarke has just published a novel titled Sting of the Drone. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Richard Clarke about drone warfare. He served counterterroism czar under President Clinton and President Bush. A year before the September 11th attacks, he pushed for the Air Force to begin arming drones as part of the U.S. effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Richard Clarke has just published a novel titled Sting of the Drone. This is President Obama in May 2013 giving a major counterterrorism speech in which he spoke about drone strikes.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set. Yes, the conflict with al-Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in that address where you were sitting. That was May 23rd. As you pointed out, just in December, the bombing of the wedding party in Yemen.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, that’s right. I mean, clearly, there was a mistake made in Yemen. And it leads you to wonder: Are these new rules really fully in force? And who’s making the decisions? The president led us to believe that individual decisions on strikes are made in Washington with large numbers of people involved, including a lot of lawyers involved, making sure that very specific rules are followed. Well, if that’s the case, and if you have to look at the target for more than a day and be very sure there’s no collateral damage, no innocent civilians in the area, it’s very hard to understand how that attack in Yemen occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to your book. Often it is said that you can write more truth in a fiction book than in nonfiction. You, Richard Clarke, have written Sting of the Drone. By the way, CIA officers, agents who write books have to be vetted by the CIA. But did your book have to be vetted by any government agency?

RICHARD CLARKE: Yeah, unfortunately, all of my books for the rest of my life have to be reviewed by the government.

AMY GOODMAN: And did they object to any parts of this book?

RICHARD CLARKE: They did not.

AARON MATÉ: There is a part of the book where a drone bombs a luxury hotel in a major European city. Is that a warning of a scenario that you envision that we might face?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, it’s meant to ask the question: What is too far? In that incident in the novel, the Americans say to each other, “We can do this precisely. We can do this very, very narrowly, so the only people who are damaged in any way are terrorists who are plotting an imminent attack on the U-Bahn, the metros, the subways in Germany. And we can prevent that attack, and no one else will be harmed. And, oh, the Austrian government won’t let us do this if we ask them for permission, but we can have a wink, wink, nod, nod, with the Austrian security service, and they won’t really mind. And this is all a good idea.”

Well, we’ve been in that position several times. You remember the CIA was doing extraordinary renditions in Italy, where the CIA station in Rome went out and picked people up off the streets—terrorists—to prevent terrorists attacks, without the permission of the Italian government, but with a clear understanding from the Italian security services that this was OK. Well, now those CIA personnel are wanted in Italy. And I think they’ve even been tried in absentia. So, I don’t think that the scene that you’re talking about is too much of a stretch from where we have already been.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk—you also talk, Richard Clarke, about the drone disintegrating. Are you talking about real technology here? How these drones—I mean, you, yourself, when—were the one that suggested arming drones, arming surveillance drones. But is this real, a drone disintegrating so that no one could detect it after the attack?

RICHARD CLARKE: It’s not a program that I know about. It may be a program that exists, but certainly not one that I know about. There are several things in the novel where I am stretching the existing technology to where I think it’s going, so that we can see in the near future what kind of things we might be faced with. And clearly, one of them is if you want to do a drone attack that leaves no trace, that looks like a gas explosion, that looks like a car bomb. Could you do that? Well, the problem today is, if you use a drone attack, there’s going to be fragments of the missile. Well, what if the missile were designed to totally disintegrate and disappear so there would be no fingerprints? I don’t think that’s far off in the future. It may exist now, I’m not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Two principal characters in Sting of the Drone go to the unmanned aerial vehicle exhibition and conference in Las Vegas. Interesting so much of this happens in Las Vegas, whether we’re talking about Creech Air Force Base or you’re talking about this convention. One says to the other, “This is the fifth Israeli company I have seen so far.” Talk about Israel’s involvement in drones. You say there are three countries that have used military drones, you know, drones as weapons, but 40 countries have the potential to. Talk about what happens in your novel.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, in that scene in the exhibit center in Las Vegas, there is not the boat show, not the car show, but the drone show. And people who have read the novel have said to me, “Well, that will never happen.” Actually, it happens every year. It’s perfectly true. There is a drone show, and it is in Las Vegas. And companies from all over the world bring their drones and put them out on the floor for display and, presumably, sale, just like you would see at the boat show.

And when you go to that drone show, one of the things that’s so striking is the number of Israeli companies, the number of Israeli drones. And the reason for that is the Israelis started this all. The Israelis created the first drone. In fact, the first drone that the United States had was one that the Marines bought from Israel. The Israelis are very good at this sort of thing. And they have a wide variety of drones in a wide variety of sizes. The Israelis have used them armed. The Russians have used them armed. To the best of my knowledge, no other country has used an armed drone. But as you say, I think about 40 countries have them.

If you look at the Chinese inventory—again, they have a wide variety, as well, but they have one that looks just like—just like the U.S. Predator. And it is so remarkably like the U.S. Predator that people in the U.S. government believe that the Chinese hacked into General Atomics, the company that makes the Predator, and got the blueprints and diagrams, and essentially built a Predator and are now selling it to almost anybody who will buy it.

AARON MATÉ: On the issue of private citizens using drones, I’m wondering if you have concerns about what, say, an extremist could do with drone technology if they wanted to attack a government building, like the man who attacked an IRS facility a few years ago. What concerns do you have about how citizens could use drones for untoward ends?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, the FBI conducts these sting operations around the country where they find someone who is interested in fundamentalist Islam, and then they try to turn them into a terrorist. And they did this with a guy up in Boston. And they suggested, the FBI, pretending to be Islamists, suggested to this fellow that he buy a drone, a toy aircraft, and put explosives into it and fly it into the Pentagon. Well, he didn’t know where to get it, so the FBI told him. And then he said he didn’t have enough money to do it, and so they gave him the money. And after they virtually forced this guy to buy the thing, they arrested him. So it’s clear that at least the FBI is thinking that there are people who are going to get these existing drones, or whatever you want to call them, and put explosives on them.

I think that’s one thing that we do have to worry about. I know the Secret Service is worried about the president giving a speech outdoors some day and a drone dive-bombing onto the podium. Will they see it coming in time? We’ve already had an incident in Florida where somebody flying a commercially available drone, a private citizen, almost ran into a passenger jet that was landing in Florida.

There’s an issue about whether or not you can fly a drone over somebody else’s backyard or fly it up to their window and take pictures. And the law is a little hazy. Apparently, in most states, you don’t control the airspace above your house. And so, you can be out skinny-dipping in the backyard in your pool, and somebody can fly a drone overhead and take pictures and post them on the Internet. And that appears to be legal. So I think there are lots of issues with regard to drones.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Richard Clarke, can you talk about the size and shapes of some of these drones, what they look like, how small they can be, like an insect that flies?

RICHARD CLARKE: There’s work going on, government-sponsored work going on, to make drones that really do look like mockingbirds or hummingbirds—really quite small, nano, if you will—that can be used for spying, can be used for reconnaissance. And they can be that small, and they can be as large as a 737. The one that the government is using now, called Global Hawk, which is Northrop’s, is the size of a 737. There’s everything from that, at the high end, to the hummingbird, at the low end, everything in between. And they are being made all over the country. They’re being made all over the world.

And it’s going to be a big part of our future. Whether or not they’re delivering Amazon books, which I don’t think will ever happen, but they will be a big part of our future. They’ll be doing the traffic reports for us. Farmers are already using them to look at crop yields. The Coast Guard is already using them to do search and rescue. So, drones are going to be part of our future, and we need to understand what the rules are that we want, so we control them and not the other way around.

AMY GOODMAN: It is interesting, in the new plot line of Fox’s 24, a terrorist group takes control of the U.S. drone fleet and uses it to attack a civilian population of London.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, that’s also an incident in my novel. And it springs from a couple of things—first, the Iranians saying that they hacked their way into a U.S. drone and caused it to land in Iran. The Pentagon says that’s not true, that it just happened to be over Iran and just happened to land. The Pentagon doesn’t really explain in any detail how that happened. So it’s possible that the Iranians did in fact hack their way in. Anything that’s networked—from my work on cybersecurity, I know—anything that’s on the network can be hacked. Any control system can be taken over. And the possibility of people hacking their way into the control system of drones is quite real.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Clarke served as counterterrorism czar under President Clinton and Bush. A year before the September 11th attacks, he pushed for the Air Force to begin arming drones as part of the U.S. effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden. He has just published a novel titled Sting of the Drone. When we return, we ask Richard Clarke if his former boss, President Bush, should be tried for war crimes.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation on drone strikes with Richard Clarke. He served as counterterrorism czar under President Clinton and Bush. Clarke resigned in 2003 following the Iraq invasion and later made headlines by accusing Bush officials of ignoring pre-9/11 warnings about an imminent attack by al-Qaeda. Aaron Maté and I interviewed Richard Clarke last week. We asked him about a 2012 U.S. drone strike that killed a 67-year-old Pakistani woman while picking vegetables in a field with her grandchildren. In [October], we spoke with her grandchildren, nine-year-old Nabila Rehman and her brother, 13-year-old Zubair, both of whom were injured in the strike.

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: [translated] I had gone to school that day, and when I came back, I had a snack, and I offered my prayers. And my grandma asked me to come outside and help her pick the vegetables.

AMY GOODMAN: You were hit by this drone that killed your grandmother?

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: [translated] Yes, I had seen a drone, and two missiles hit down where my grandmother was standing in front of me. And she was blown into pieces, and I was injured to my left leg.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nabila, you’re nine years old. How have things changed for you since the attack? How’s your—going out again, out into the fields alone, do you fear again other possible attacks?

NABILA UR REHMAN: [translated] Ever since the strike, I’m just scared. I’m always scared. All of us little kids, we’re just scared to go outside.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s nine-year-old Nabila and her 13-year-old brother Zubair. They’ve had endless operations dealing with their own injuries. Their grandmother, killed. Zubair, the 13-year-old, talked about how they’re afraid to go out on a blue sky day because that’s when the drones particularly strike, that it’s the gray days that they feel safer. Can you respond to actually hearing the targets of these drones, whether or not they were intended? Because in the United States, we are here at the trigger end, but we rarely hear what it feels like to be underneath the drone.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, it raises the question—obvious question: How did that happen? And what was the result of that? Did anybody get punished? There is a file. You know there is. There’s got to be a file somewhere in the United States government about that incident. And we don’t know if anyone looked into it, if anyone was punished. We don’t know if we understand why that mistake was made. And that’s part of the problem with the drone program, is there’s such secrecy and such lack of transparency that we just have to take the government’s word for it, that there are very few mistakes, and that we learn from our mistakes. But I think in an incident like that, it would actually serve the government’s purpose better to share the results of an investigation, to do an investigation—which I hope and assume there was, but we don’t know—and to show the results of that investigation. How was it possible? Given all the work on targeting, how was it possible for those children to be hit? And what are we doing about it, both in terms of correcting our procedures and in trying to compensate the family? You know, if they were hit by an American artillery shell or an American tank in Iraq, an American soldier would rapidly go there, under the rules that we used in Iraq, and apologize, if they could find people to apologize to, and pay the family compensation, which is acceptable in Islamic tradition as part of repentance, is to pay compensation. Sounds like that family has never been in any way contacted, and certainly not recompensed. So, I think there are ways the United States government could have done this better that would have resulted in fewer collateral damage incidents. And in—

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Clarke, I just want to interrupt to say, I mean, you’re not just an average American with a conscience who hears this story. I mean, when you say the government should be doing this, you were a part of the government for so many years. You were an architect of the program. So that makes particularly important what it is that you’re saying. Instead, the U.S. government, in this case, would not give a visa to their lawyer to travel with them, who speaks English, who would be, you know, their guide when they testified before Congress, you know, to help them—I assume, thinking that they wouldn’t then come, you know, coming to the country where the weapon was from that killed their grandmother. But they came anyway, even when the U.S. government blocked their lawyer from coming.

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, let’s just be clear: I was not part of the government when this sort of thing was going on. I quit the government after 30 years because I could not tolerate the Bush decision to invade Iraq. And before he launched the invasion of Iraq, I quit. And while I did advocate arming the Predator to go after bin Laden, I was never involved in decisions to do widespread use of the Predator. So this is not my program that I’m the architect of. I own up to what I did, and I make it very clear in the book, but I don’t want to be blamed for things that I didn’t do. I think the program got out of hand. And I think the excessive secrecy about it is as counterproductive as some of the strikes are.

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