Fatal Vision

Richard Clarke talks about his frightening scenario of an America hobbled by terrorism—and what we can do to avoid it

Today, more than three years after 9/11, it's becoming a bit harder to recall the horror of that day, and a bit easier to believe in the government's ability to protect us from attack on our own soil. But in "Ten Years Later," the Atlantic's January/February cover story, Richard Clarke, who directed our country's counterterrorism efforts under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, gives a stark warning of just how vulnerable we still are. His article is a piece of futuristic fiction—a speech given to the Kennedy School of Government on the tenth anniversary of September 11—that imagines a country reeling from a five-year barrage of al-Qaeda attacks.

In Clarke's frightening scenario, a woman walks up to a crowded roulette table in Las Vegas and blows herself up—the first in a series of suicide bombings at casinos and amusement parks. Men with submachine guns enter five malls around the country and shoot shoppers at will. Bombs go off in subway systems in Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Terrorists armed with heat-seaking missiles destroy four 767s. A cyberattack on computers around the country causes nationwide chaos. And on and on. With each new blow, the economy grows weaker and the country creeps closer to becoming a police state. By 2011 civil liberties have been harshly curtailed; the country bristles with security workers and aggressive methods of surveillance; and everything entering the U.S., whether by sea, land, or air, is tightly controlled.

The most chilling aspect of Clarke's piece is that while it's a work of fiction, it's also deeply rooted in fact. Among the imagined descriptions of attacks, Clarke weaves true details: for instance, that al-Qaeda is known to have kept several Las Vegas casinos under surveillance; or that surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down a 767 have in fact been stolen from unguarded weapons stockpiles in Iraq. Underlying the piece is Clarke's deep understanding of the types of threats we face and the strength and ingenuity of our enemies. As he writes in an author's note at the end of the piece, "For those who may say that this has given the terrorists recipes and road maps for how to attack us, here's a bit of bad news: the terrorists already know in much greater detail how to attack us again."

Clarke, who became well-known to the public for his testimony during the 9/11 hearings, worked within the government on national-security issues for thirty years until leaving the Bush Administration in 2003. He is also the author of Against All Enemies, which is a gripping, insider's account of the government's efforts to fight terrorism and a passionate argument against the path the war on terror is now taking. In both his book and his article for the magazine, Clarke is harshly critical of the Bush Administration's decision to go to war in Iraq, arguing that it has both distracted us from our fight against al-Qaeda and made that fight more difficult. In a foreword to the paperback edition of Against All Enemies he wrote,

It pains me that so much of what I wrote in this book is coming to pass. I would rather have been wrong, but the truth is that by the blindly ideological, arrogant, irresponsible way in which the Bush administration responded to 9/11, by enraging the vast majority of the Islamic world and failing to reduce our vulnerabilities to al Qaeda, they have actually managed, incredibly enough, to make us less safe than we were before the attacks.

In the case of "Ten Years Later," of course, Clarke again hopes that he is wrong—that his stark prophecy will nudge the country toward a serious debate over the lengths we need to go to protect ourselves.

I spoke with him by phone on December 17.

Katie Bacon

How did you come up with the idea to write an imaginary account of the first ten years of the war on terror?

I remembered how influential the 1970s book The Third World War was in stimulating debate over what we should do about the NATO-Soviet Union confrontation that was building in Europe. In that book, a British general named Sir John Hackett jumped ahead about ten years and portrayed what would happen in a war in Europe between these two very modern militaries. It did so in such graphic detail and with such credibility that it really stimulated a great debate and gave us a big impetus towards creating the arms-control measures that largely demilitarized Europe. I thought, What better way to stimulate debate about homeland security than to do the same kind of thing: jump ahead about ten years and show what will happen if we don't improve our homeland-security posture before attacks occur?

Is this article an attempt to get people to be a little more imaginative in terms of the types of threats we might face?

Yes. I think people who own and operate shopping malls and casinos and theme parks and railroads may not have taken these threats seriously. Maybe someone who is in charge of security at a shopping mall will take this article and bring it to his boss and say, "Please read this." And if that happens—if the head of security at one casino, or the head of security at one subway, is able to use this article to persuade his boss to spend more money on security—then it definitely will have been worth writing the article.

What sort of response are you expecting? Are you expecting criticism from people who may question why you're putting this all out on the table?

Oh, sure. My critics will definitely find all sorts of arguments as to why I shouldn't have written it. One of them will be that I'm giving a recipe book to the terrorists. And we thought about that. But we know the terrorists already have their recipe book, and it's a far more detailed recipe book than what we're providing here.

I also think it may do some good on two counts: by getting people to increase security now and by stimulating debate about the trade-offs between civil liberties and security. The civil-liberties side of the debate tends to get short shrift after an attack.

Could you talk about the difficulties a democracy faces in trying to guard itself against terrorist attacks? How can we effectively protect ourselves without infringing on civil liberties?

I don't think we need to infringe on civil liberties in order to protect ourselves. But I do think there are some procedural issues that we as a nation need to debate. Things like, What is the appropriate role of smart, or biometric, cards? It's now required that all foreigners coming into the U.S. have a digital photo taken of them and have their index fingers biometrically scanned. We're going to have this program called US-VISIT, where all people entering the United States are given smart cards. Wherever I go throughout the world now—and I've been in the Middle East and Asia in the last month—governments are issuing smart cards for identity.

On first blush, this sounds like an invasion of our civil liberties. But people in the United States already carry driver's licenses issued by state governments. And those driver's licenses are really easy to fake. So if we're going to have to carry a government ID anyway, wouldn't it be better to at least have one with really good security on it? And then if people wanted to use the ID for other purposes on a voluntary basis, what's wrong with that? I would love to be able to move more rapidly through an airport and not have to wait in long security lines. It's ridiculous that I and other people who have top-secret security clearance and are well known not to be security risks have to wait in these long lines and take off our shoes and belts and all of that. I would voluntarily give the government the right to do a lot of research on my background in order to certify me so I could receive a biometric smart card. I think there are a lot of Americans who would voluntarily go through that kind of procedure. As long as it's voluntary, is that a risk to our civil liberties?

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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