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From the Archives: Tom Clancy Talks About How Jack Ryan Would Handle Osama bin Laden
The author answers questions about bin Laden, the Middle East, President George W. Bush, and his thoughts on the future of America.
In the closing chapter of Debt of Honor, author Tom Clancy penned this scenario: A kamikaze pilot flies a passenger jet into the US Capitol during a joint session of Congress, killing the President, most of the senators and representatives, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the Joint Chiefs.
In Clancy’s next book, Executive Orders, newly appointed President Jack Ryan tours the smoldering ruins of the Capitol and begins the process of rebuilding a government and nation. It gets worse before it gets better, as an Ebola virus spreads terror through America. “The unprepared mind just stopped and tried to make sense of the senseless,” Clancy wrote.
Now life is imitating fiction, as President Bush seeks to rebuild America’s confidence in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing outbreak of anthrax. As US bombs rained down on Afghanistan in hopes of eliminating Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, the nation wondered: What’s next?
So we put the question to Clancy, who is familiar with the ways and means of military power and the shadowy world of spies—and whose livelihood has involved getting inside the minds of the nation’s enemies. Here’s what he had to say.
When you wrote about a kamikaze pilot crashing into the Capitol, did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that anything like the September 11 attacks could happen in America?
No. The role of fiction is supposed to be divorced from the role of reality.
What were you doing the morning of September 11?
I was at home drinking my coffee. I was shocked and amazed and angered. Fortunately I didn’t know anyone who went down.
Yet it almost feels like the nation was there at ground zero.
TV will do it to you. Since then I’ve really been there, and it’s quite a bit different up close. I don’t know if I have the ability to describe it. It’s a lot more real in person.
Do you know where the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was headed?
It’s believed that five planes were supposed to be hijacked that day. As to what would have been done with the other aircraft, the Capitol and the White House would be obvious targets.
Are we in the bull’s-eye in Washington?
I guess so.
What do you tell your friends in Washington?
I have no friends there. They’ve all moved out.
What can you tell the people still there?
Continue to live your lives. Living well is the best revenge. The objective of a terrorist is to create political change in the society he targets. If we change, he wins. If we don’t change, he loses.
Are you doing anything differently?
If this were a Tom Clancy novel, how would the plot evolve?
Whoever put it together, whether it was Osama bin Laden or one of his people, exercised a good deal of imagination. He really, really doesn’t like the United States of America. He wanted to get our attention. I suppose he did. I hope he feels good about it because he overplayed his hand, and now we are going to get him. We’ll get him.
Because we’ll blow up every cave in Afghanistan until we get him?
Taking out Luray Caverns isn’t all that hard when you think about it.
Is that victory?
I don’t think that means it’s over. We have to figure out who’s behind this anthrax stuff. I don’t think it’s Osama bin Laden, at least not entirely. I’ve never heard of a University of Kabul Medical School with people with the biochemical knowledge to execute this anthrax campaign. Whether it’s some lunatic American local or some foreign national living in the United States who is similarly crazy or some overseas operation, you just don’t know yet. I’ll leave that to the FBI; I don’t know.
How bad can the anthrax threat get?
When I was doing Executive Orders, I talked about Ebola to people who know about infectious diseases and their use as weapons of war, and guys told me that these weapons are more psychological than physical. *
We are seeing that. We’ve had people die. We probably had more people die from lightning strikes in the same period of time. But we don’t care about them, although they are just as dead.
So more than anything else, you have a psychological weapon that’s achieving its objective of frightening the American population, certainly the American media.
Are the media overreacting?
The media usually do. They say America is in a panic. Well, they are talking about themselves because this time they have been targeted. Maybe they will recognize that they are indeed citizens of America, not part of some international elite and immune from the normal vicissitudes of life. If so, maybe it will be a useful lesson for them.
In Executive Orders, a terrorist organization unleashed the Ebola virus on America. Is that possible in this environment? Or are there other biochemical weapons that you fear more?
Smallpox would be the worst, because it’s essentially untreatable and spreads around quite well by itself. Smallpox is a pretty nasty disease.
Now there are only two known supplies of smallpox, in the United States and Russia. Given what we know about the Soviet germ-warfare project, they had a ton of stuff ready to use as biological weapons. I don’t know if they still do. Also the North Korean army is inoculated against smallpox. Now why do they do that unless perhaps they have weaponized smallpox available to use in military campaigns?
How would terrorists likely deliver smallpox?
The idea is to infect people in various parts of the country, who then spread the disease all by themselves. They would spread a lot of it before we knew it was there.
How prepared are we?
Not to the extent we’d like to be, but certainly better than nothing.
A lot depends on how efficiently the agent is delivered. Probably we could control it, but it would be very, very scary. In the past when there were smallpox outbreaks, they’d surround the area. People would be quarantined.
How much of a real risk do you consider a smallpox attack?
It does now seem serious.
How about Ebola?
Ebola is a nasty disease to get. It’s scary. But as a weapon, it is probably not likely. Ebola is a difficult malady to weaponize and deliver efficiently. It’s a delicate little son of a bitch.
How do you assess the threat of a nuclear attack?
That would be very worrisome indeed. In some ways, the scariest part of all of this is the Pakistanis. They have 10 to 15 entry-level nuclear devices. Those are Hiroshima-class weapons. These are probably not missiles but gravity bombs they could drop from F-16 fighters.
Could they make it to America?
If you can get cocaine through the port of Miami, you can get anything into America. You could deliver the bomb in a Ford F-150 pickup. Just put it in the back of the truck, drive it where you want, set the timer, and walk away.
How big are they?
Oh, Fat Man, Little Boy—roughly the size of a desk, maybe a little smaller.
What damage would they do?
Ever see pictures of Hiroshima? It would wipe out a square mile of Washington. Beyond that, you’d have a lot of scorching and broken windows, and radioactive material would fall down and need to be cleaned up. It would be pretty bad.
What about so-called “dirty nukes,” where a terrorist wraps a regular explosive in nuclear waste?
That’s easy, if you can get the nuclear crud together. The residual material from nuclear reactors, for example, is shipped around in caskets. Were you to get hold of it, you could spread contamination around a half square mile or so and make that a very difficult place to live. If you get more than 500 rads, it will kill you in a relatively short order, ten days or so. If not, you are more likely to develop cancer over the course of your life or various other ailments resulting from increased radiation.
It’s a dangerous world, babe.
What odds would you give for a nuclear attack?
I’m not a bookie. But it’s not totally out of the question.
What do you think Osama bin Laden really wants?
It’s hard to replicate the thinking of a psychopath.
How would a Jack Ryan handle him?
If you give people like this a little of what they want, they ask for more. You can’t placate people like this. You either give them what they want or you kill them. There is no middle ground.
Will we kill him?
We have a very competent military whose job is to kill people we don’t like.
Are there any Jack Ryan-type heroes in this real-life thriller?
The firemen and cops in New York who ran into the dragon’s mouth. They knowingly ran into danger. Some got out, and a lot of them didn’t. Those are heroes by anyone’s definition. Also the soldiers, sailors, and marines who are doing the job for us in Afghanistan right now.
How about our political leaders?
I don’t regard a president as being heroic. The president doesn’t put his life in danger. Putting one’s political career in danger doesn’t compare to putting one’s life in danger. That said, I think President Bush is doing pretty well. He doesn’t need any help from a novelist.
Well, Congress has invited some Hollywood scriptwriters to war-game various scenarios with them.
I’ve not been a part of it. It’s too speculative.
Are we at a hinge of history?
Look, something’s happened that never happened before. That’s always a bookmark in the history books. Now we have got to deal with it. If we learn to deal with it successfully, it will never happen again. If we screw up, it will happen again, and we will lose more people and more buildings. So we have got to get it right the first time.
How are we doing?
It’s tough to say how you’re doing draining the swamp when you’re up to your ass in alligators.
Is there any good coming out of this?
Yeah, if we just prevent terrorism on a global basis. Terrorists exist because various national states make a Faustian bargain with them. They let people operate within their country as long as they promise not to do any nasty things within their borders. From now on that’s going to be a less popular thing to do.
Why is Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan? He can’t go anywhere else. The Saudis tried to kill him five years ago. Unfortunately they failed. The shooter was detected and eliminated before he got to Osama.
We are making progress, because it’s clear to all of us now that it’s not smart to reach an accommodation or make any deals with terrorists. Their oases will dry up. They won’t have anywhere to go.
If we get Osama, then what?
It probably will not stop there, depending on the hunting license President Bush gives the military to go after terrorist groups all over the world. This military is capable of doing damn near anything. I think it’s an idea with considerable merit.
Seeing Bush standing shoulder to shoulder with Russian President Vladimir Putin is a stunning post-September 11 development. Will that tragedy lead to a new geopolitical world order?
I think it’s a possibility, yes. The world has changed for the better with the fall of the Soviet Union. The world is a lot safer now than it ever has been.
Though we have never felt so vulnerable on our own soil.
That’s right, not since 1814. So? It was bound to happen sooner or later. But remember people can sting us, but they can’t really hurt us. The United States of America is a very large and robust country with 250-plus million citizens, all of whom work and do useful things. We have a large and powerful military, which is capable of destroying anything we tell it to destroy.
Looking inward, what mistakes has America made?
The place that we really dropped the ball is our intelligence. Because a lot of people thought the CIA’s mission was not exactly cricket, the CIA’s principal function—or what ought to be its principal function—of gathering human intelligence was crippled in the 1970s and never really reestablished.
Well, you can’t find out what Osama bin Laden is going to do by taking photos of the cave entrance. You need somebody close to him who can talk to him and say, “Hey, Osama. What’s happening, dude?” You need intelligence officers who are working down on the street with real people. The technical wizards are very useful, but you need human intelligence as well.
The bad news is it will take ten years to reestablish the capability we lost back in the 1970s. The good news is it can be reestablished.
What about our policies in the Middle East?
The huge mistake America made in the last ten years, for which we are paying now, is that after the Afghans did such a courageous job to defeat the Soviets, we just walked away and said, “Thanks, guys.” We should have helped them rebuild their country.
Historically, America is pretty good at fighting wars. But the one thing we do poorly is we never really plan for after the war. If someone does you a favor, you do a favor back. The Afghans helped us defeat the Soviet Union, and that really helped us to bring about the fall of the Soviet Empire, and we owe them something for that. A whole lot of Afghans got killed in that war, and we could have treated them better. If we had, Osama bin Laden probably would not be camping out there right now.
Have we also mishandled the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Do you have six hours to discuss that?
The Israelis are not the be all and end all. The Middle East is not composed just of Israelis and barbarians. It’s composed of some very viable cultures. America should embrace Islam.
Islam is a religion whose values are the same as those of Judaism and Christianity. And yet some here regard Islam as an association of barbarians, which is a racist and bigoted way of thinking. America is a country where freedom of religion is the first and most important of all rights. One of the reasons that America is different from the rest of the world is that we enforce religious tolerance in our country. And yet in our foreign policy, we put that principle aside. That is a mistake.
We have got to recognize that Islam is a religion with a belief system that is identical to that of Christianity and Judaism with a God of love, mercy, and justice. If we would embrace the parts of Islam with which we agree and de-emphasize the parts with which we disagree, we could make a lot of friends and avoid making a lot of enemies.
What do you see in your crystal ball?
We will move through this. I’m optimistic. What we have to get used to is the idea that every so often someone is going to try to punch us in the nose. Our return strike is going to kill them, but every so often we may get a bloody nose. The thing about being the biggest, richest kid on the block is that people are going to dislike you simply because you worked hard to be what you are. But what country has done more good for the world than the United States of America?
What’s the final chapter?
You can’t pay me enough for that, sorry.
We’ll get the bad guys. Then the question becomes, are we going to get to use the hunting license to go after the others or just the ones that stung us?
In 1987, I published a book called Patriot Games in which I proposed that terrorists are the modern version of pirates. It’s a principle of international law that a pirate is the common enemy of all mankind, and when a warship sees a pirate ship it can go off and sink it because a pirate is everyone’s enemy. Similarly, the terrorist is everyone’s enemy, and just because the pirate is not messing with the United States doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go kill him.
Do you feel any of your books are eerily predictive of today’s crisis?
I don’t think Osama bin Laden is a Tom Clancy fan. The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction makes sense.
This article appears in the December 2001 issue of The Washingtonian.