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?

These are all issues about which there is no right and wrong. There's no one side that has wisdom here. We need to have a public debate about these kinds of issues so that we can develop a national consensus prior to an event, because after an event, as we saw with the Patriot Act after September 11, legislation goes through Congress without consideration. So I'm hoping that by laying out in the article all sorts of things that would be done rapidly after an incident, I can spur that debate.

Along the same lines, in the article you describe a country that by 2011 has hardened itself: it's teeming with security workers and armed forces using various methods of surveillance, and all borders are tightly controlled. How close is this to what you think needs to happen in the years ahead?

I think some of it probably needs to happen, but some of it probably would be unfortunate if it did happen. And that's what I want the debate to be about: which of the many things that I describe in the article as happening after the attacks would be okay, and which of them wouldn't; and which of them would need to be modified in order to be acceptable. Because if you do them all in the wrong way, then our civil liberties will be eroded.

And no matter how much you harden a society, there are still going to be ways for people to attack.

Sure, absolutely. Everyone has to understand that there's no silver bullet. But we can make it more difficult. We already know of instances where terrorists have decided not to attack because security was too high. That's been true of American diplomatic facilities abroad; that's been true of the Brooklyn Bridge, where a terrorist was assigned to do reconnaissance for an attack and there were so many New York police guarding the bridge that he sent a message back to al-Qaeda that the facility was too heavily secured.

Could you talk about the private sector and how it is or could be involved in the war on terror? How much information does the government share with, say, casino owners if intelligence shows that there might be a threat?

It depends on the sector. Some sectors complain that the government doesn't talk to them. With other sectors, it's the other way around. For example, the casino operators were actually told that the government had some information to give to them. And some of the casino operators in Las Vegas said they didn't want to hear it, because then they might be liable if something happened.

What a terrible response.

It was an awful response. And, of course, they're liable in any case. If there's a record that the FBI called them up and said, "Come down and see this information," they're already screwed. So it varies. I'd say there's good cooperation in the electric-power industry and the banking industry. I think the shopping-mall owners haven't done enough. The casino operators and theme-park people haven't done enough. There's some progress being made in the subways and trains, but it's not enough, and it's not consistent.

Do you think you would have written this article if we hadn't invaded Iraq?

It's hard to know. I think if we hadn't gone into Iraq, we might have defeated al-Qaeda by now. If we hadn't gone into Iraq, all of our intelligence efforts, law-enforcement efforts, police efforts—all the money that we're wasting in Iraq could have been spent going after al-Qaeda in a major way. By now I think we could have reduced al-Qaeda to a little nub. And of course if we hadn't gone into Iraq, the terrorist movement would not be growing.

Now that we're there, what should we do?

I have an opinion on what we shouldn't be doing. One of the things we shouldn't be doing is attacking places like Fallujah. We told the American people that the reason we were going into Fallujah was to secure it in order to have an election there. But in fact we leveled the city, and it will never be the same. We're not even allowing people back in.

Do you think the reason we did that was to show American power?

We did it to kill terrorists. We did it because the Pentagon leadership has this theory that you can beat terrorism by killing all the terrorists, which has historically proven not to be the case.

And it must make the Fallujans pretty angry.

Absolutely. It has greatly increased support for the opposition.

You talk both in your book and in the article about the need to come up with an ideological counterweight to the jihadis. And when people talk about the battle of ideas, it's hard not to think that we'll just end up resorting to the same kind of ham-fisted propaganda tools that we've used in the past. How can we avoid heading down this road?

We have to recognize that this is not something that the United States government can do. It's really got to be done by Muslims in the Muslim countries. It's got to be done by the Europeans and the NGOs, and not by the U.S. government, because the U.S. government is incapable of doing it.

You talked in the book about three things we need to do in order to win the war on terror, and to me this one seemed like it was going to be the most difficult of the three.

It is, and we need all the best minds we can get to start thinking about how to do it. And again, we need to have that national —or international—discussion.

You have an unusual perspective, because you have been a close observer of and participant in foreign and national-security policy for four Administrations. Can you talk about why you decided to stay in the public sector for most of your career?

I was a career civil servant, and career civil servants expect to spend their careers in the government. I spent thirty years. Most people leave at the end of twenty or twenty-five. I would have spent a longer time there had the Administration not done such egregiously wrong things that I felt I couldn't participate in them.

My sense from reading about your experience in the previous three Administrations (before the G. W. Bush Administration) was that you loved being in the government and that you took great pleasure in your job and in the way government worked.

It was a challenge. Every day was a challenge. If you looked at it that way—that the real challenge was to get a system that's designed to prevent things from being done to actually accomplish things—then I think it's a lot easier to get motivated.

In Against All Enemies you write that during the Cold War we "saw all foreign policy issues through the prism" of that conflict, just as we're now seeing all such issues through the prism of the war on terror. What are we missing by doing so?

We're missing all sorts of things. For example, I was struck last year when the President went to Indonesia and all he talked about was terrorism. The President of China went to Indonesia and all he talked about was economics and trade. If we become entirely terrorism-centric in our relations with the rest of the world, we'll make a lot of mistakes. We already made the mistake of making it so difficult to get a student visa that we're destroying one of the best things we had going, which was our higher-education system. Everyone around the world wanted to get their undergraduate and graduate education in the United States. Now they don't. That will hurt our educational institutions financially. But much more important is the fact that the elites of the world will no longer study here, so we'll lose influence over their opinion. So, sure, terrorism is important, and getting visas right is important. But destroying one of our real institutions—the teaching of foreign leaders—is also important.

In your book you express frustration at your discovery that "turf battles could derail even the best efforts at counterterrorism." Battles over turf seem to be an almost unavoidable part of government bureaucracy. If September 11 can't cut through them, is there anything that can?

Yes, leadership. Good leadership at all levels. People of goodwill can reach compromises on turf issues. But it requires leadership that calls people into account when turf battles occur and that mediates successfully. That's what I tried to do, and it can be done.

You give a couple of examples in which Clinton says, "Get this done; I want this done." If someone really insists they want something done, then that can cut through some of the turf issues.

Yes, absolutely. And if you have the President's ear, you can say to people who are involved in turf battles, "Look, I gotta report to the President on how this is going. What do you want me to tell him? That you two can't agree?"

You describe a military during the Clinton Administration that was often unwilling to heed the President's calls for action—or, in the cases where it was willing, refused to take civilian advice on how to achieve a military goal. Has that aspect of the military changed since September 11?

I think it's changed enormously. As soon as it became clear to the military that they were going to be subject to criticism for not participating in the war on terrorism, they immediately began justifying everything that they did as part of the war on terrorism.

Is the military now more welcoming of civilian advice in terms of how to achieve a certain goal or mission?

Well, I'm afraid a lot of the civilian advice and direction they're getting now is not very good. And they know that and they resent it, but they're being forced to carry it out.

At the end of your book you write that it's important that trust in America's word be restored. Is there any way this can happen while Bush is President?

No. I think he personally has lost all credibility abroad, and there's nothing he can do to return it.