Tom Clancy's fans believe his political plots are visionary. Long before the threat of a dirty bomb taunted the public imagination, the best-selling author had written "The Sum of All Fears," about Palestinian radicals who detonate a nuclear explosive at the Super Bowl. Even more eerily prescient was his 1994 novel "Debt of Honor," in which a suicidal pilot crashes a jumbo jet into the Capitol.
Clancy's new novel--released this week--seems just as tuned in to the current zeitgeist. "The Teeth of the Tiger" is premised upon an argument for pre-emptive action by a super-secret spy group--set up with the president's blessing--outside the federal budget and away from prying Congressional eyes. As much a defense of the recent American war on Iraq as a precept for fighting terror, "Teeth" pits Clancy's new generation spooks against a chilling alliance: a Colombian drug runner motivated by money teamed with an Islamic extremist inflamed by faith.
Clancy, however, remains adamant that he is just trying to tell a story--not making any political points. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about how the United States might better fight terrorism, his experiences working with Hollywood and what he, a famously cantankerous novelist, really thinks of the media. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Thanks for your time today, I know you're not a huge fan of interviews.
Tom Clancy: Nonsense. You guys have your job to do and it's an important job. I sometimes wish you did it better--but then a lot of people wish I did my job better.
At one point your protagonists debate the legitimacy of the preemptive killing of potential murderers.
Would you prefer to have a hero without a conscience? Real people have them, including U.S. Marines.
But that particular debate seems especially relevant in light of our recent war on Iraq.
If people make war on us, we have the right to make war back. Actually, one of my characters says that in so many words. And in war you don't knock on the guy's door and say, "Can you come outside so I can shoot you in the face?" You just kill them. Because in war the rules are different. Well, we're in a war now with terrorism; we should use different tactics, tactics that would be somewhat more effective than what we're doing now.
That seems to be what you're saying in your book.
No. I'm telling a story; I'm not making a political statement.
Fair enough. At one point in 'Teeth of the Tiger' you refer, from a terrorist's point of view, to America's "suicidal openness to strangers."
A lot of people ask me about that. That's how our adversaries think. I don't like this label "Islamic terrorist" because it sounds religiously bigoted and I don't approve of that. But a lot of these guys are people who are educated outside their countries in Europe or America, and I discuss that at some length in the new book. Essentially what happens is you have people who come out of fairly restrictive societies into what is a fairly open society and they don't always make the transition terribly well.
Do you yourself see this openness as one of our bigger vulnerabilities?
Any free country has vulnerabilities and the reason is because we're free. We don't deny people the right to travel. I could drive if I want to from New York to LA, God forbid, and there's no legal restriction preventing me from doing that. And that's a good thing. Whatever dangers come to us as a result of our freedoms, I'll take the freedoms and the dangers.
I'm curious about this group of spies operating outside the system in your book, the proverbial teeth of the tiger. What are they if not some sort of rogue organization?
No. Rogue organization is a bad choice of words. A rogue elephant is an animal that has gotten kind of out of control. A rogue agency is something that's operating beyond its charter. Well, these guys are not operating beyond their charter.
But they technically don't exist. They don't even have a charter.
Well, it's not written down, but they have one.
With no set of checks or balances to --
That's how you strangle. That's how you prevent people from doing real things. The whole premise of the book is if the government wants to do something effectively it has to be outside the budget process. That's why the original title for this novel was "Off the Books."
But an agency like this could easily fall under the wrong leadership without those checks and balances.
That's why you have to be very careful setting it up. But at some point you have to trust professionals to be professionals just like you trust doctors to be doctors. That's what they do.
It's interesting that you brought up red tape. Your books are known in part for their action, but --
Mainly what I do is try to portray reality, to show things the way they really are. And with all due modesty I think I'm pretty good at that. The way the world really works is that the world is not digital, it's analog. Which means the world is an untidy place. And I portray it as an untidy place.
So is this spook group in "Teeth of the Tiger" your fantasy of cutting through the red tape?
Maybe so, but it would work if people gave it the chance. The CIA does not work that way, and because it's part of the budget process and subject to political oversight, it's hard for the government to be efficient. There's a point where one of the characters asks another: "How is it you were able to do that?" And he says, "Well, private industry can be much more efficient in choosing civilian contractors," and that's just a fact. Private industry is more efficient than the government.
Are you suggesting that information-gathering agencies like the CIA and NSA--
I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just telling a story.
Can I ask you, then, is the CIA outdated? Are they configured to a Cold War world that doesn't exist any more?
The CIA exists because it performs an important function. It gets information from another country to the decision-makers in our government. The problem is that the decision-makers can't use the CIA efficiently to make use of the information which they provide. Now if we had solved that problem, I wouldn't have to write a book like this.
There are critiques of the press throughout the book--one of your heroes even compares it to "women trading gossip."
Really? Well whoever said that wasn't me. The press has a very important function. You may be the principal guardians of our freedom. You guys have a vital function to our country. But unfortunately, I don't think you always take the job seriously enough.
So you advocate a press that does act as a check, even though you were just complaining about too many checks and balances in government.
Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, the press has kind of put its own spin on things, and that's not what you guys are paid to do.
With the homeland security alert bouncing from yellow to orange and back again, has the government done clumsy job of keeping the public calm and informed?
Yeah, I think that's pretty stupid. And the trouble with you guys in the media is that someone does something stupid and you [attack] him. Why don't you just say, "this is stupid" and just go on? Or better yet, don't even talk about it. One of the problems I have with the news media is that you'd rather have a bad story than a good one. What you should ask is, "How do you fix it," not, "Who got it wrong." The first thing that people asked when the planes crashed into the twin towers was, "whose fault is this." Well, it's the fault of the idiots flying the airplanes for starters. But you can't blame the intelligence community for not doing its job properly if you don't give it proper support, and when was the last time the media supported the CIA? If you treat 'em like dogs they're going to urinate on the fire hydrant rather than get the burglar.
Speaking of finding fault, you have grumbled about the adaptations of some of your movies. Who would you like to see playing your protagonist Jack Ryan if another movie were to be made?
I think Ben Affleck [who played the role in "The Sum of All Fears"] is doing just fine. He's a really good kid. He's working really hard to be a good actor. And you can actually hold a conversation with him, which is not true of all actors. I'm delighted to be working with him. We talk a lot, we're not working on anything specific, but we talk because we're pals.
But some of the adaptations of your books take liberties with your plots.
Yeah, they do that. It's like watching someone put tattoos on your baby. When you sell a book to Hollywood, they get rights. As long as I get the money I can't complain too much, can I?
So you've done books, you've done movies, even video games. How did the games come about?
I started a company back in 1996 and it seemed like a fun thing to do. I sold the company a couple years ago, but guess what, it was really fun. I had a great bunch of kids working for me. I called them my perverse children. And they did superbly. The game that spun off of [the novel] "Rainbow Six" did very well indeed.
Do you play them yourself?
No. It's a lot more fun for me to help design them than it is to play them. One thing I'm good at, the other I'm not.
Did you ever want to be a spy when you were growing up?
Dear God, no. I can't lie worth a damn, so it's the wrong business for me.
But it must be fun to write about it.
It's fun to be a novelist because it's kinda like being God. I decide whatever happens in my universe. And that can be kind of fun just so long as you don't get carried away with it.
You have complained in the past that the 1991 gulf war ended prematurely. What do you make of what's going on in Iraq now?
Well, we finally got the original job done and I think it's going to work out. It's going to be a sloppy process, but we're going to get there.
You've said that you're proud to be American. Do you ever worry about patriotism or national pride being mistaken abroad for hubris?
[Laughs] The people with the most hubris in America work at the New York Times and the Washington Post. The New York Times really thinks their pages are holy. They're a newspaper--it's not holy; they make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But hubris? That's a Greek word from a long time ago. That's really a disease of kings and princes.