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Sting of the Drone
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Sting of the Drone

3.4 7
by Richard A. Clarke, Ari Fliakos (Read by)

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In Washington, the Kill Committee gathers in the White House's Situation Room to pick the next targets for the United States drone program. At an airbase just outside Las Vegas, a team of pilots, military personnel and intelligence officers follow through on the committee's orders, finding the men who have been deemed a threat to national security and sentenced to


In Washington, the Kill Committee gathers in the White House's Situation Room to pick the next targets for the United States drone program. At an airbase just outside Las Vegas, a team of pilots, military personnel and intelligence officers follow through on the committee's orders, finding the men who have been deemed a threat to national security and sentenced to death.

On the other side of the world, in the mountains where the drones hunt their prey, someone has decided to fight back. And not just against the unmanned planes that circle their skies, but against the Americans at home who control them.

Clarke not only remains an active and respected presence within the national security community but also appears regularly as an expert commentator for ABC and other media. His insider's expertise is on full display in Sting of the Drone, a breathtakingly realistic novel set within America's contentious drone program.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Audio
Ari Fliakos ably reads this work by former national security advisor Clarke (Cyberwar). The novel concerns the "Kill Committee," whose members meet in the White House to decide which individuals deemed to be a danger to national security will be terminated by drone half a world away. The committee then orders military personnel in Nevada to carry out the orders. However, some of those who are being hunted have decided to turn the tables. This political novel disguised as an action thriller uses extended dialog to present various arguments concerning the use of drones. Fialkos is clear and deliberate in delivering both dialog and narrative with a steady pace, and his reading helps to overcome the novel's somewhat flat characters. VERDICT This production should be considered by public, military, and academic library patrons.—Michael T. Fein, Central Virginia Community Coll., Lynchburg
Publishers Weekly
★ 03/03/2014
Insider knowledge of politics paired with amazing state-of-the-art technical details fuels this realistic nonstop action thriller, the best yet from Clarke (The Scorpion’s Gate). From the Global Coordination Center at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, the center’s director, CIA officer Sandra Vittonelli, oversees her roomful of drone pilots as they hunt down terrorists across the planet. Once a “Kill Call” to Washington officials establishes that a “High Value Individual” is a threat to the U.S. and eligible to be “droned,” the pilots fire missiles remotely from the unmanned planes and America is instantly that much safer. When a Pakistani tribal clan, al-Qaeda, a revenge-seeking terrorist, and two Ukrainian hackers join forces and declare war on the American drones, a deadly back-and-forth duel ensues, threatening the program and the lives of those who send the planes into the sky. Clarke, who served in the White House under presidents Reagan and Clinton (the latter appointed him as National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism), as well as both Bushes, has set the standard by which all such titles in this growing subgenre will be measured. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (May)
From the Publisher

Sting of the Drone explores a premise that members of the intelligence community have been kicking around for years: What would happen if the targets on the receiving end of a killer drone decided to strike back? As you read Sting of the Drone you get the sense that it isn't fiction at all. Clarke has written a classic in the genre of what is known as insider fiction--a novel or, more often, a thriller inspired by real episodes…Sting of the Drone stands above the rest…This is riveting reading.” —The Washington Post

“What Tom Clancy did for submarines, Richard A. Clarke does for drones. Fascinating and frightening, Sting of the Drone moves as fast as the new kind of warfare that it depicts, with authentic details that only someone with the author's impressive insider credentials could know. This first-rate thriller…a cross between a techno-thriller and a docu-thriller, ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to know the current status of the battle against terrorism.” —David Morrell

Sting of the Drone is a jet-fueled race through a world where the sky itself can be your worst enemy.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Insider knowledge of politics paired with amazing state-of-the-art technical details fuels this realistic nonstop action thriller…[Clarke] has set the standard by which all such titles in this growing subgenre will be measured.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“On rare occasions a thriller comes along that turns out to be prophecy: Sting of the Drone is one of them. This rip-snorting thriller may be the best unclassified peek you will ever get on the new high-tech offensive in the war against terrorism. A seminal, prophetic, troubling must-read.” —Stephen Coonts

“Clarke does a terrific job showcasing how the drone program works and revealing something about the men and women behind the scenes who use the machines.” —Booklist

“This one smacks so much of reality you'll swear it's real. Written in a deft hand, by a man who knows what he's talking about, the take-no-prisoners plot serves up a banquet of high drama, action, and adventure. A great read.” —Steve Berry

“It's rare a novel is written ahead of the headlines, but the plot of Sting of the Drone is just that book. If you've wondered what it's like to be inside the U.S. Predator drone program, your wait is over. Prepare for your hand to take hold of the joy stick, your heart to lodge firmly in your throat. Tom Clancy takes to the air. Put this book on your radar.” —Ridley Pearson

“Exciting and disturbing…There may be no better person to write this story than Clarke, who brings his deep subject knowledge to the pages.” —Kirkus Reviews

Sting of the Drone is a riveting page-turner that goes deep into the complex world of those who hunt with, and are hunted by, military drones. Rich with detail and informed by his expertise in national security, Richard Clarke brings this hidden world to vivid life.” —Jeff Abbott

Kirkus Reviews
The latest thriller by counterterrorism expert Clarke is both exciting and disturbing. American Predator and Reaper drones exact continual punishment on the nation's enemies; or, more specifically, on people who fit a profile. From deep in America's heartland—at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, for example—controllers manipulate joysticks to strike targets on the other side of the world. What's a beleaguered America hater to do? They must strike back, blow up American subway systems, kill drone controllers in the U. S. "The drones," says a man named Ghazi. "We have had enough of them. We are going to go after them. We are going to swat them dead." Only then, reason the bad guys, can they make Americans stop using killer drones. In typical thriller fashion, the scenes and viewpoints shift quickly from continent to continent, from friend to foe. There may be no better person to write this story than Clarke, who brings his deep subject knowledge to the pages. Unlike other thrillers driven by a hero like Jack Ryan, this one doesn't have a single dominating character but rather a team that aims to prevent retribution raining down on the U. S. Will it succeed? America's enemies are as determined as they are aggrieved, and this story explores what might happen if they also had drones. Perhaps each side would inflict terrible damage upon the other. And as one character says, "Death is kind of irreparable." Well worth reading, both for its quality as a riveting tale and for the issues it exposes. Americans profile people and kill them from air-conditioned offices half a world away. Then they commute home, kiss their spouses and answer the question, "How was your day, honey?"

Product Details

Macmillan Audio
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.08(w) x 5.94(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt







The man they called Skander had come this way. It was over a hundred generations ago, but the watcher on the hill knew the story. Everyone did. The long column, pounding down the dirt, kicking up the dust, had passed through the canyon below. Then he had built the city in the south and named it after himself. Finally, he and his men had gone, as they all eventually do, as these new ones would.

Now the hardpack road below was rutted, studded with rocks, seldom driven. The lead Pajero SUV sent up a cloud of dry sand, which settled back down on the road before the second vehicle came along. They had learned to keep a distance between their vehicles, but not because of the dust clouds. After two hours on the road, the men noticed that the searing sun covered only half of the narrow path. The high, steep walls in the canyon limited full sun to a few hours a day. The two faded Pajeros maneuvered slowly around a boulder where the road turned north.

Then they saw the goats. The animals on the canyon floor were spread around a few stunted trees and a small green pool fed by a stream falling from the rocks above. Scattering the baying goats, passing the pond, the drivers accelerated as the road straightened out for almost a hundred meters. Then the lead driver hit the horn, three short bursts, although he knew the watchers had announced their approach. The flaps in the netting against the canyon wall parted as the vehicle drove toward the gray camouflage. Under the cover, with the engines off, it was cooler, darker, quiet.

The men in the tent welcomed the new arrivals, kissing them on both cheeks, their bushy beards brushing together. Then they showed the guests to the low table on which the roasted goat lay surrounded by piles of its meat, sliced, spiced, shredded. Bowls held the mezza of lentils and pomegranates. Pitchers held cool water and lemons. Seated on the worn rugs with their rifles behind them, the men began to break off pieces of the flat bread, folding it in their right hands into scoops to pick up the meat. Few of the men spoke. Business could not be discussed before the guests accepted the hospitality. It was tradition.

Although the guests were Pakistanis from the big city of Karachi, they were ethnically Pashtuns, as were the Afghan Taliban who now welcomed them. For the Pashtuns, there was no Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The visitors had come, as they often did, to review the reports of poppy production and arrange for shipments. The beautiful red flower grew so easily in Afghanistan and from it came the paste that the men from Pakistan sold throughout the world as heroin. The Afghans and Pakistanis did other business as well. The Pakistani crime cartel, the Qazzanis, helped their Afghan cousins fight the latest invaders and their Afghan stooges, helped in all sorts of ways. The Qazzanis had many friends in Rawalpindi, home of the Pakistan Army, and in Islamabad, where the intelligence agencies had their headquarters.

Mohsin Qazzani finished his meal. As deputy to his older brother, Mohsin was the heir apparent to the vast Qazzani crime empire, but he liked getting out of the city, seeing the operations. He felt safe here, off the road, hidden beneath the new camouflage. It was sad that the Afghans had to live like this, but it was better than being in the open where the killing birds could see you. There were so many of the birds now, and they had killed so many, on both sides of the border. His hosts now brought boys with bowls of water to wash the feet of the guests. They lit aromatic wood in small braziers to honor the guests. More tradition. Business would have to wait a bit longer.




The room five thousand miles to the east was also cool, dark, quiet. Lit by the glow of the screen in front of him, the red-haired Air Force pilot suddenly sat straight up in his specially designed ergonomic chair. He was one of thirty Air Force pilots in the room, each remotely flying a drone somewhere in the world. Each wore an olive-drab one-piece flight suit emblazoned with colorful unit patches and symbols.

In front of him were two large and six small screens, ten analog dials, and two sticks. The two large screens provided the live image feeds from two of the cameras onboard his drone, one a high-definition televisionlike video, the other an infrared or synthetic aperture radar image for night operations. One stick directed the aircraft, up and down, right and left. Thumb dials on the side of the stick allowed the pilot to precisely control ailerons and wing flaps. The other stick armed weapons, launched them, and guided them to the target. For weapon release a small, red metal cover on the side of the stick had to be lifted and a button physically depressed before the selected missile launched or the chosen bomb dropped. Despite all of the on-screen controls, a hand had to touch metal before the death from above could be unleashed.

Next to the pilot a similar cockpit could be staffed by a noncommissioned officer to assist the pilot when needed on complicated missions, providing a second set of eyes to look at sensors, or perhaps to steer the aircraft while the pilot guided a missile to the target. Today, the second seat was empty. The pilot was on his own.

“Got somethin’ here, boss,” the pilot called out.

Colonel Erik Parsons spun around in his chair above and behind the pilots. Parsons was the squadron commander for the drone pilots at Creech Air Force Base, where there were more Unmanned Aerial Vehicle pilots than at any other of the twelve bases from which Americans directed their worldwide fleet of drones. If pilots were supposed to look like the cartoon hero Steve Canyon, tall and blond, Erik Parsons looked more like a wrestling coach, short, stocky, with closely cropped black hair.

Erik got out of his chair and walked purposefully, quickly down the row of pilot cubicles toward the pilot who had called out, Major Bruce Dougherty.

“Whatchya got there, Carrot Top?”

“Goats, boss. I got goats. But I don’t have goat herders. Water, but no people.”

“Bruce, there is water all over the world without people nearby.”

“Yes, sir, but not in these arid mountains in the summer. Besides, that was just the tell. I made a second pass with the synthetic aperture radar imager turned on and … presto … two SUVs sitting under a camo tarp about a football field up the road from the water. Three more and a couple of pickups under netting farther up the canyon. Now, with the infrared on you can see a whole complex of shit nestled up against the canyon wall, hiding from view under the netting. Or so they thought.”

Erik Parsons leaned over the pilot for a better look at the screen. “Throw it up on the Big Board, Bruce.” As a series of green blobs flashed onto the main video screen, covering two hundred square feet on the front wall, Parsons picked up a red handset. “Sandy, we got any HVIs likely to be up in grid square A-08? I think I got a live one.”

In the glass-walled room behind the pilots’ cubicles, Sandra Vittonelli consulted her own small screen. “Maybe. We lost signals from a guy guarding a High Value Individual almost three hours ago in sector A-17. That’s not too far away, he could be in A-08 by now. But that’s hardly reason enough to get excited.”

“Well, Sandy, even without a named target on screen, I am looking at enough suspicious activity here to designate this a signature-based strike. I think we got us a terrorist camp.” As Erik Parsons spoke he patted Bruce Dougherty’s shoulder.

Sandra Vittonelli stood and squinted through the glass at the Big Board in the next room. “I’ll be right out to the floor.”

Since she was far away from Washington, Sandra wore jeans, but in deference to standards she had learned at Headquarters over the years, she also wore a blue blazer. It helped to make clear the authority relationships. Sexism was officially taboo, but some of these jocks needed reminders sometimes. They were not all used to taking orders from a short, civilian woman in blue jeans. Although she was a CIA employee, as Director of the Joint Global Coordination Center for the program, she owned the pilots. There had been a single, integrated drone program for both the Pentagon and the Agency planes now for three months. When Erik had asked her about the blazer once, she had told him that she wore it because the air-conditioning was set too low in the Center and, moreover, the jacket also gave her lots of pockets for her “stuff.” Then she had changed the subject to why the pilots felt the need to wear jumpsuits when their airplanes were thousands of miles away.

As she stood at Bruce’s cubicle, she was aware that all the other pilots were watching her and not focusing on the video feeds from their aircraft. “I gotta admit, it does fit a signature,” she told Eric and Bruce, “but how long you been looking at it?”

Bruce looked at the digital elapse clock running in his console. “I’ve been loitering for seventy-three minutes now. I’ve run electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar passes. This is one of the new birds with all three types of sensors. The analysis software has located thirty-two human life-forms, identified all of them as adults. Except for seven guys on the hills, all of them are under the camouflage. No signatures of women or kids.”

She looked at Erik, who shook his head in affirmation. “It’s a good one, Sandy.”

Vittonelli put on her poker face. “Let’s loiter some more. And pull up any imagery of the place from past missions. Somebody must have passed over it before en route to somewhere else.” Then she picked up the handset of a red phone. “This is the Director, GCC. Let’s wake up the boys and girls in DC. I’m initiating a Kill Call.”




The mechanical extension of Major Bruce Dougherty, the thing that moved in the air when Bruce’s hand made adjustments with the joystick in his cubicle, was pressing ahead at only eighty-five miles per hour against the cold wind two miles above the canyon. Up there the sound of the propeller at the rear of the plane, twenty-seven feet from the nose, might have seemed loud, but there was no space on board for a human, nobody up there to hear the constant buzzing. No one was there to notice that the bottom of its fuselage and its forty-eight-foot-long main wings were a light blue like the sky above it, while the top of the aircraft was a dark gray. There was no one to see the three mechanical eyes of the sensors twisting, adjusting, focusing. The pump quietly kept the fuel flowing steadily to the little engine. The seven onboard computers hummed softly. The blister antenna, inside the bump on the top of the plane, moved silently to keep pointed at the satellite, while sending a steady stream of data up to space and capturing the constant flow coming down.

In response to Bruce’s slight pressure to the control, the bird now banked, its left wing moving up, causing the aircraft to move to the right, back toward the men below the nets.

In the canyon, shadows now covered all of the road and much of the rock wall. Some goats were still in the sun, higher up, near the watcher, hunting for grass and little stubbly shrubs among the rocks. The air had been still, but then the wind shifted and the watcher heard buzzing. His eyes darted back and forth, scanning the bright sky. He saw just the blue, nothing else, the blue. Then the buzzing came again, louder, closer. He unbuckled the radio from his belt and hit the push-to-talk panel. “Drone.”

As he spoke the word, which meant the same thing in Pashtu as it did in English, the watcher on the hill was bowled over by the blast from the first of the four Hellfire missiles hitting the canyon floor below. The missiles hit ten meters apart in a tight pattern, each puncturing camouflage netting and canvas, bursting into orange-yellow balls of flame and then into black plumes of fast climbing, churning, thick smoke. Sections of the rock wall broke off and fell to the canyon floor, kicking up brown clouds of dust. The concussive sound rolled down the canyon, overwhelming and persistent. The goats on the hill tripped and faltered as they ran higher up. Over a mile above them, the blue-tinted drone nosed up and banked right into a tight turn.

Another watcher on the road near the big boulder to the south saw the flashes in the distance before he heard the sound. Then it took him almost twenty minutes to climb higher, enough out of the canyon so that the satellite phone could pick up a signal. He knew the call could only last thirty seconds so he thought of what he would say before he hit Call. “Mohsin Qazzani. Droned.”

The unmanned aircraft circled for a few minutes more, recording the BDA, the Bomb Damage Assessment, waiting to see if others would arrive to help the injured. If others showed up, they could be hit by the two Hellfire missiles left on the Predators.

No one came.




Erik Parsons pointed to Bruce Dougherty, “Okay, bring the bird home.”

Standing next to him, Sandra Vittonelli turned toward the two men in flight suits and read aloud the message on her secure iPad. “NCTC reports Mohsin Qazzani was at the camp. He’s the younger brother and chief deputy to the head of the Qazzani clan, the Pakistani drug cartel and designated terrorist group. Righteous shoot. Big Kill.”

“Way to go, Brucey,” Erik high-fived his pilot.

“Righteous kill, man! That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout,” the Major called out as he stood in his cubicle. A ripple of hoots and applause arose in the darkened room. On the Big Board the image from the drone showed the smoldering fire in the blackened mounds on the canyon floor. Then the image jerked and shifted to the tops of mountains, beautiful in the early afternoon sun, set against the cloudless blue.

But when he later left the room full of pilots and walked into the fresh air, Erik Parsons found himself in a place where it was still dark, hours before the dawn. He stretched and sucked in the air, stared at the stars, then walked to the car parked in the Squadron Commander’s space.

Erik turned on the radio in his black Camaro as he drove past the guards at the gate, moving out into what the pilots called “Civilian World.” He passed Indian Springs and headed south on 95 toward the city.

“It’s all-you-can-eat at Las Vegas’s best Fancy Seafood night at the Galaxy Club Wednesday with Maine lobster, Alaska King Crab, and Louisiana crawfish.…”

He switched the Bose sound system from the local FM radio station to Sirius satellite radio and ’90s Pop Hits. Although it was four in the morning the lights from the Strip glared on the horizon from the billion-dollar casinos, the re-creations of Manhattan, Paris, Venice, ancient Rome, and even more ancient Egypt. As incongruous as it all was, he loved it, the dancing fountains, the erupting volcano, the clashing pirate ships. Leave it to the Air Force, he thought, to put a complex of air bases in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Creech Air Force Base to the northwest for special operations and the huge Nellis Air Force Base to the east where they flew the fighter-plane contests, force on force.

He hit “Home” on the Camaro’s communications screen and he heard her voice after two rings.

“Hey, hon. You on your way home already?” Jennifer Parsons was a night owl who preferred to see her patients after dark and then stayed up writing her reports until Erik came home near dawn. In nocturnal Vegas, it didn’t seem that odd.

“Five minutes out. It’s been a good night.” Erik accelerated the car at the thought of seeing his wife. “Meet you in the pool?” He pushed the speedometer past ninety as he headed down route 95 toward their North Las Vegas housing development.

“I’m beginning to see some advantages to this whole Empty Nest syndrome,” she replied. “I’ll bring the brewskies, Flyboy.” With that, Dr. Jennifer Parsons rose from her desk, unbuttoned Erik’s old shirt, let it drop to the floor of her home office, and then walked naked down the hall to the kitchen. She slid back the glass door to the patio and, beers in hand, stepped from the barbecue area down to the pool and the hot tub. She did three laps before she heard his car and finished the fourth while watching him climb out of his flight suit and dive toward her.

Fifteen minutes later they got around to the Heinekens in the hot tub. Erik looked again at the stars. “He was a big one, Jen. Well hidden. Bruce found him. Another guy would have missed it.”

“Good, Bruce needed a lift.”

“We’re finding them, Jen. We’re winning.” Erik threw his two arms up in the air, mimicking a monster, moving across the hot tub toward his wife. “We’re gonna get them all, ha, ha, ha.”

Jennifer Parsons ran her fingers through the thinning black hair on his head and then through the graying hair on his still firm pecs. He kissed her breast, then moved his head lower. She threw her head back. She thought the sky in the east seemed pink; maybe daybreak was approaching. Or maybe it was the glow from the Strip, maybe just a false dawn. She had lost all track of time.


Copyright © 2014 by RAC Enterprises

Meet the Author

Richard A. Clarke served for thirty years in the United States Government, including an unprecedented ten continuous years as a White House official, assisting three consecutive presidents. In the White House he was Special Assistant to the President for Global Affairs, Special Advisor to the President for Cyberspace, and National Coordinator for Security and Counter-terrorism. Prior to his White House years, he served as a diplomat, including as Assistant Secretary of State, and held other positions in the State Department and the Pentagon.

Since leaving government in 2003, Mr. Clarke has served as an on-air consultant for ABC News for ten years, taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for five years, managed a consulting firm, chaired the Board of Governors of the Middle East Institute, and written six books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the national number one bestseller Against All Enemies and Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It.

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