Any Mumbai Sunday

One woman is on a quest to sell American football to India. Is anyone buying?

Sitting in her Los Angeles home in the spring of 2009, Sunday Zeller, a slim, blond, businesswoman and mother of three, had a revelation: What India desperately needed, she thought, was a dose of good, old-fashioned, American manhood.

Zeller had just returned from her first visit to India, and what she'd seen, she said, disturbed her. While strolling through the streets of Mumbai, she noticed what she called "very much a feminine energy." There were no little boys kicking balls around on the street, she said, no fathers roughhousing with their sons. All the locals she met seemed to be nudging their children toward academics, like engineering or computer programming, and away from athletic pursuits. "For little boys who are not intellectually inclined but are athletically able, there were not a lot of masculine outlets," she said.

By masculine outlets, Zeller meant sports: an arena where "masculine role models can actually be heroes," she said. In her opinion, India needed more than cricket; what India needed, Zeller said, was American football: "the ultimate manly, gladiator sport."

So Zeller set about bringing the gridiron to the subcontinent.

Two years later, the Mumbai-based Elite Football League of India (EFLI) was born; five years on, it has just wrapped up its first season and is warming up for a sequel, which will begin in August, with a series of preseason kickoff games. The league, which spans India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, is composed of eight teams with names like the Kolkata Vipers, the Bangalore Warhawks, and the Pakistan Wolfpak. (Like their American counterparts, teams tend to be named after menacing animals -- with the exception of the Pune Marathas, a reference to the 17th-century Maratha Empire, remembered for vanquishing foreign invaders). It plans to eventually expand to 16 teams, but that depends on whether it can find an audience for a sport that remains not just foreign, but thoroughly associated with the United States. This year will be an important test. Last season, when they were just introducing the sport to India, the EFLI's founders weren't concerned about low attendance at games; this year, they want to know whether their efforts to convince South Asia of the virtues of America's favorite sport have delivered.

That a strange foreign sport might find a home in India is not such an odd notion. Cricket -- today a national obsession -- began as a Western game with confusing rules. Yet 200 years ago, cricket was an easy sell for Indians aspiring to the prestige of the British elite. Today's middle-class Indians are very different from those who took up a colonial sport with abandon. The Indian economy is exploding; global companies are competing fiercely for a sliver of India's consumer market, tailoring their products to suit the tastes of Indian people.

And so, five years on, Zeller and her partners find themselves facing a tougher challenge: They're trying to sell India not just on football, but on square-jawed American manliness. Are any Indians buying?

* * *

It seemed an easy pitch at first. Zeller -- who has 25 years of experience building companies, including a shipping company with outposts in India -- first ran the idea past her long-term business partner and ex-husband, Richard Whelan, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Whelan quickly got on board, won over by India's growing middle class and the sports infrastructure, from stadiums to cable stations, already in place. The well-connected pair reached out to their network of friends and clients and managed to put together an all-star roster of investors: Actor Mark Wahlberg, former All-Pro quarterback Kurt Warner, and Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Ditka all plowed funds into the $8.5 million project (which is not affiliated with America's National Football League -- NFL). And on Aug. 5, 2011, Zeller and Whelan officially launched the Elite Football League of India, complete with cheerleaders and imported American commentators to narrate the games.

Indians, Zeller told me, love America.

"India has adopted every American tradition," she says. "They love the American culture and anything we have to introduce."

But that's not entirely true -- at least not when it comes to how Indians choose to spend their money.

Over the last two decades since the Indian economy has liberalized, the country has been notably resistant to the allure of American culture. While other emerging markets such as China and Brazil have embraced McDonald's and Calvin Klein, American companies scrambling for a piece of India's $1.1 trillion consumer market have struggled to win over customers. Hollywood movies have never been able to compete with Bollywood's offerings, with less than 10 percent of film revenues in India going toward Hollywood-made films. Unlike almost every other country in Asia, people in modern India have largely continued to wear traditional attire, which still accounts for 75 percent of apparel sales in the country, so American clothing companies haven't found as much traction there as they would like.

American brands that have done well in India have worked hard to adapt their products to the market. McDonald's, for instance, overhauled its menu to offer largely vegetarian fare, while KFC created dishes like tandoori chicken and chicken curry to suit local taste buds. Procter & Gamble repackaged its shampoos and soaps into small sachets, sold at low prices, to cater to consumers who earn daily wages.

But the peculiarly American tradition that is football may have an even tougher sell in India. The Indian league's founders, however, are banking on the fact that franchised sports are proven moneymakers on the subcontinent. When the Indian Premier League was formed in 2008 to offer a shorter, more TV-friendly version of cricket, it was wildly successful. In 2013, 100 million viewers watched the first five matches of the season; the Indian Premier League's brand is currently valued at $3.03 billion.

"There is enough room at the table for football, even if cricket dominates. You're looking at the buying power of the middle class in India, and it is exploding," says Kevin Negandhi, an anchor for U.S.-based sports channel ESPN and an EFLI investor.

But football faces a double hurdle: It's a distinctly American sport trying to put down roots in a place that has shown little appetite for what America has to offer -- and, much like cricket, for those who did not grow up with the game, it is notoriously difficult to understand.

* * *

"I was not sure exactly what American football was," says Roshan Lobo, the 22-year-old star running back and captain of the Bangalore Warhawks. "I had to Google it."

Raised in a family of modest means in Bangalore, Lobo studied commerce at the university level before taking a job at a recreation company that offers corporate team-building experiences. He only heard of the league when his rugby coach urged him to try out in 2012. Two years on, Lobo has been voted the league's most valuable player and is being groomed to be the public face of the EFLI, according to Negandhi.

Polite, humble, soft-spoken, and slight in person, he comes across very differently in an EFLI promotional video, where he speaks with the trash-talking swagger of an action-movie tough guy: "People say that I am India's best athlete, and I think they are right.... Girls running towards me and asking for autographs: I love them, and they love me." At 6 feet and 176 pounds, he's still about 15 pounds lighter than even the lightest of the NFL's running backs, but he has at least learned to talk a big game: "I'm stronger than you, faster than you, and smarter than you," he says in the promo video. "If you want to challenge me, come on."

Preetesh Balyaya, 28, was working at his family's supply-chain company when he heard about the EFLI tryouts from his judo coach. After many rounds of tryouts, Balyaya was selected to play the mystifying position of offensive lineman. "At the time I did not know what I had to do, but I was pretty happy that I was selected," says Balyaya, now captain of the Mumbai Gladiators. "I was completely lost.... I had no idea what my responsibilities were or what the hell I was supposed to be doing."

Zeller and Whelan brought in American coaches to teach recruits the basics of football, but the first season -- in which each team only played six times -- was what you might call a learning experience. Quarterbacks struggled to complete passes; players who'd received the ball often looked confused about what to do next. On offense, teams struggled to put points on the board.

In the championship game -- a rain-soaked affair played in Sri Lanka between the Delhi Defenders and the Pune Marathas -- the teams managed a combined 6 points, the lone touchdown scored by Marathas running back Rugger Sathish, followed by a missed extra point. The quality of play was about that of a middling American high school football team, but the games had their own brand of charm -- touchdowns were celebrated with Bollywood-style dance moves, with teammates pumping their hands in the air and shrugging their shoulders in unison.

But few fans actually saw these experimental first attempts. "We would go for the matches and there were no crowds at all," says Balyaya. He is not exaggerating: At some games there was not a single spectator in the bleachers.

Robert Clawson, one of the EFLI's first American employees, who now runs the league's U.S. operations, said that season one operated as a more-or-less closed set, with no attempt to bring fans out for live games. Instead, the EFLI dived straight into finding a TV audience. Worried that broadcasting a game Indians did not understand from start to finish would be a recipe for ratings disaster, the league borrowed a page from the reality-television playbook and filmed the entire first season -- splicing each game's most exciting moments into episodes of a high-production-value television show called Elite Football League of India. The show broadcast on Ten Sports, an Indian cable station whose programming is distributed throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The episodes string together clips of body slams and players grunting in slow motion over dramatic music, while American-accented voice-overs draw viewers in with narration like, "Pune is flexing its defensive muscle as Colombo's rock-solid ground game runs into a rock-solid wall," and "Warhawks' all-everything man, Roshan Lobo, fields the punt and he is off to the races."'

The theatrics appear to have worked. In a preseason kickoff between the Mumbai Gladiators and the Hyderabad Skykings on Feb. 8, 2014, more than 18,000 people showed up at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad to cheer the players on. Although spectators' knowledge of football was sketchy -- the crowds later peppered players with basic questions about the rules of the game -- they still went wild when points were scored.

"We used to think, 'What are we doing? Have we taken a wrong step by joining the league?'" Balyaya says. But "being on the grounds, watching people at the stadium cheering for us and coming for autographs and photos -- that was the best thing that ever happened to me," he says. He's also convinced that the quality of play is improving. "The second season will be a really professional one," he says. "We have a lot more experience now."

* * *

Exporting sports to foreign lands is a tricky business. When they fail, they fail spectacularly. In 2007, for instance, NFL Europa finally collapsed after 16 years of hemorrhaging an average of $30 million a season.

Much like the EFLI, NFL Europa tried to sell football to a new, untapped market. One major difference, though, is that NFL Europa consisted largely of third-string American players rather than local athletes, which, Negandhi, the ESPN anchor, says, was the source of the league's downfall: "In any sport, we connect to people that we relate to. I don't think you can have success in a new country with a new sport from America without local players." Rather than focusing on creating a product to succeed in the local market, NFL Europa largely served the interests of the mothership. It was intended both as a promotional exercise and as a training ground for young American talent. Kurt Warner himself played for the Amsterdam Admirals before returning to the United States to become a two-time MVP; other big names like Jake Delhomme and Adam Vinatieri also spent time in the league, but it produced few European stars.

Negandhi says the EFLI is aiming for a model closer to Japanese baseball, which though a quintessential American game, is arguably Japan's most popular sport. First introduced to Japanese students in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American professor teaching in Tokyo, the game first caught on at universities and among office recreational teams before a professional league was formed in 1936. In 2013, when Japan went to the finals of the World Baseball Classic, 40 percent of Japanese households tuned in to watch it on TV.

Japan's professional teams fill their rosters with local players and have rules limiting the number of foreigners on a team. There is also an elaborate set of rituals that accompanies Japanese baseball games: Fans create unique chants for each player and sing anthems when their team wins. (William Kelly, an anthropology professor at Yale University, believes these chants are rooted in medieval folk songs that Japanese farmers would sing to harvest gods.) Over the last century, the game of baseball in Japan has transformed into a uniquely Japanese experience, offering glimpses of what an Indianized football game could look like.

When introducing a new sport to a foreign audience, the key is building an "authentic connection" to the country and its people, says Bobby Sharma, a senior vice president at IMG, a global sports-marketing company that has been in India for 30 years. This is the story of basketball in India, Sharma says. Basketball was introduced to India in 1930 by the YMCA, only a few decades after it was invented in the United States. The game has been widely played at the high school and college levels for generations and is a part of everyday life in India. In schoolyards and public parks, it is common to see Indians playing basketball for fun. "That's something impossible to fabricate, but rather something which has to be nurtured from genuinely organic roots," he says.

As a step toward integrating football into Indian culture, Zeller and Whelan are trying to introduce the game to a younger audience. Whelan has been working with the Indian government to develop extracurricular football programs at universities around India, Zeller said, and the league is trying to expand at the collegiate level, hoping to create an Indian version of NCAA football, and recently formed a partnership with the Association of Indian Universities. "Right now, it's all about the education of the game," Negandhi, the ESPN anchor, told me.

The league has also made clumsy attempts to add indigenous touches to games. Before the season one championship, for instance, the trophy was brought out on a palanquin by a bevy of women dressed in ceremonial saris, led by what appeared to be a holy man playing a conch shell -- a sort of synthetic nod to the traditional method of transporting Hindu deities in religious processionals. Through the stadium loudspeakers, Indian drum and flute music filled the air, as an American-accented commentator delivered the introduction: "A trophy, which may be delivered in style with beauty and grace, but will have to be won with toughness and skill."

Even the EFLI's players don't seem to be convinced by these attempts at Indianization; for them the game remains thoroughly foreign. "I can never neglect that fact that this game is from America," Balyaya says. Still, their passion for football is real enough. "I love the game. I really love it," Lobo told me. And when it comes to comparing football with India's most popular game -- cricket -- Balyaya is emphatic: "Tell me, is it so interesting to hold a bat in your hand and to watch 10 stupid guys running behind one ball?" he asks. "No, it is not. But see, American football, it's like a gridiron gang. There are big tackles. That's what a young crowd wants to see."

Could the EFLI teach young Indians the ways of American manhood? After one season, Balyaya, Lobo, and their teammates strut and trash talk their way through games; fans gather by the field during practice sessions, ooh-ing and aah-ing particularly aggressive tackles. For her part, Zeller is thrilled. "I wanted to give the younger generation more heroes to look up to," she told me. Thousands of fans are turning up for the kickoff, and the market for the sport is starting to develop in larger cities like Mumbai and Chennai. After years of putting in 24-hour days, she says, a breakthrough is finally on the horizon. "They're starting to fall in love with football," she said. "Just like we did here in the States."

Courtesy of EFLI

National Security

Reading Between the Targeted Killings

Richard Clarke's new thriller about the U.S. drone program hits surprisingly close to home. But is the administration insider a critic of Obama's war on terror?

There's a timeworn tradition for writing a book in Washington: A political official spends a few years in office, then writes a score-settling tell-all. It's a rite of passage for policymakers moving on to their next careers.

Richard Clarke wrote that book 10 years ago, after leaving a two-decade career in counterterrorism that spanned the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, through the development of cybersecurity, to the response to the September 11th attacks. He hasn't stopped writing since. But in addition to his two acerbic non-fiction accounts of his national security career -- 2004's Against All Enemies and 2008's Your Government Failed You -- and his second career in consulting (another D.C. tradition), Clarke is breaking the Washington model with a side career writing thrillers.

His latest, Sting of the Drone, released May 13, is a fictional take on the U.S. targeted killing program. He knows the program better than most: He helped establish it. His new book is a fraught mix of fact and fiction made more credible by his career. It is certain to influence its readers, but less certain is whether it will influence them how Clarke intends.

"You're going to have the option of describing things that aren't true -- it's the beauty of fiction," Clarke told Foreign Policy in an interview last month in the K Street offices of Good Harbor Consulting, where he is chairman and CEO. "But you can sometimes do that to drive home a point that, if you stay entirely close to reality, the point gets lost, or the point gets muted."

That's been clear from the start. His first foray into fiction in 2005, The Scorpion's Gate, about the rush to invade a fictionalized oil-rich Middle Eastern country called Islamyah, carried the tagline, "Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction," on its cover. After that came his 2007 cyberthriller, Breakpoint, in which terrorists try to sever U.S. Internet connections to the rest of the world. And now, with Sting of the Drone, Clarke brings America's unmanned program of targeted killing home.

The plot swerves from the office of the national security advisor to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, from which much of the U.S. drone fleet is remotely piloted, to the mountains of Pakistan -- as a combination of the NSC, CIA, and U.S. Air Force try to stop a plot to attack U.S. subway systems and pick off Air Force pilots at home. The villains are al Qaeda-backed hired guns, a rogues' gallery that includes the "Qazzanis," a why-even-bother-changing-the-name stand-in for the Haqqani network, and a collection of Ukrainian hackers-for-rent who develop technology to commandeer U.S. drones in flight over Pakistan. (Incidentally, the new plot of the recently resurrected TV show 24 also concerns terrorists gaining remote access to U.S. drones.) As the United States tries to stop the attacks, the book veers into outlandish spy-thriller campiness -- in a particularly egregious moment early in the book, the national security advisor authorizes a drone strike on a luxury hotel in Vienna, Austria -- but other parts, especially the scenes at the White House or Creech, feel grounded in Clarke's experience.

That makes "fiction" a slightly odd category for librarians looking for shelf space. Cover blurbs tout its fidelity to fact: It is "the best unclassified peek you will ever get on the new high-tech offensive in the war against terrorism," claims one; another calls Sting of the Drone a "docu-thriller." The technology, events, and even some of the characters are thinly-veiled representations of real-world analogues. There's the situation room meeting with an undersecretary who "might be the first female secretary of defense in a few years" and a legal counsel who is notably "the only person of color at the table." If the dog whistles are hard to miss, they're incidental, Clarke claims.

When asked about the allusions he makes to specific people with whom he worked, he smiles and shrugs. "I wanted people to feel like they've been in the meeting, an actual kill committee meeting, so I wanted to get the kind of personalities that typically are in certain positions," he told FP. "I think bureaucracies, agencies, departments tend to have personalities themselves that spill over into the people that work there. If you've worked in a department or agency for 20 years, its personality has imprinted itself on you."

Clarke is hardly the first administration insider to take the impression left by government and adapt it to fiction. For decades, the thriller genre has been a second home to intelligence veterans -- though the transition is more common in Britain than the United States. "Ian Fleming is probably the best known, although of course he would not have been publicly associated with issues with which he was involved while working in Naval Intelligence," Kelly Greenhill, a professor at Tufts University currently writing a book on the influence of fiction in national security, told FP by email. David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name, John LeCarré, was working for MI6 when he wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. Decades later, that novel inspired Joseph Weisberg to join the CIA, where he worked for four years before leaving to publish a novel, An Ordinary Spy; he's now the executive producer of the TV show The Americans, set in the dog days of the Cold War. And it's not just mid-level spooks who turn to writing: Stella Rimington, the first public director general of MI5, has written a half-dozen thrillers over the past decade.

Their work is made more compelling by the depth of their knowledge -- Clarke pointed to Red Sparrow, the debut novel by Jason Matthews, who spent three decades working for the CIA, as one of the best books he's read recently, along with consummate D.C. insider and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's forthcoming thriller The Director. They stand out, Clarke says. "I don't want to criticize, but there's a whole bunch of other authors in the thriller genre who haven't a clue about what the truth is in these things."

And Sting of the Drone is first and foremost a thriller, he said. "I want people who enjoy thrillers to enjoy this book as a thriller, because it will fail if that's not true.... So that's the first goal." But he also stressed that he wrote the book with a point in mind. "The second goal is for people to see both sides of the issue, or all sides of the issue."

* * *

"What you want to do, I think, with fiction is ... write in large colorful letters so you really drive home a point," says Clarke.

What the point of Sting of the Drone is, though, never really becomes clear. Part of that is because the book's perspective is largely limited to a set of U.S. government officials who believe -- and frequently say throughout the book -- that drones are "all we got," or "the only thing that they [the CIA] have that works," or "still the only game in town." Arguments against the targeted killing program are given short shrift.

For the most part, the opposition to the drone program in the book is limited to Bryce Duggan, a naïve, ruggedly handsome, globe-trotting journalist chasing down drone stories -- from interviewing survivors in Yemen to being tipped off about hijacked drones in Pakistan. Clarke never misses an opportunity to undermine the character; the barbs range from subtle asides (he finds the taste of whisky served neat too strong for his taste) to unethical conduct (he buys access to al Qaeda sources). "You see, you report in color, but it's a world of grays," a patronizing NSC official tells Duggan at one point.

Those grays encompass an expansive vision of the U.S. drone program's not-too-distant future. In reality, U.S. drone strikes are believed to have killed up to 3,800 individuals in six countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen). In the book, drone operators conduct strikes in Austria, the Red Sea, and Mali and hint at operations in Algeria, Chad, and the Philippines. In one scene, an armed reconnaissance drone is routed away from patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border. And it's not just Predators and Reapers, either. Clarke describes a half-dozen other just-over-the-horizon drones, including advanced technologies that will allow drones to loiter for days at a time over targets or operate with complete autonomy.

He also describes real organizations: "The UN has created a Special Rapporteur, whatever the fuck that is, to keep an eye on our use of drones," a U.S. official complains at one point. There's the lawsuit, a clear nod to the suit filed by the Awlaki family over the deaths of U.S. citizens in drone strikes in Yemen, which was dismissed in 2013. And then there are the "signature" strikes -- authorized based on observed patterns of activity rather than hard intelligence on particular terrorist subjects -- depicted in the book, many of which have clear real-world precedents that Clarke says he was mindful of while writing.

Clarke says he isn't concerned about conflating fact and fiction in the book. "I think readers who are really concerned will try to figure out which is which, and they can probably do that by spending two minutes on Google," he told FP.

If that seems like an unreasonable expectation for his readership, that's because it is, say critics.

"Most people don't have the time or inclination to spend their time parsing the difference between what's real and what isn't in Richard Clarke's book, Zero Dark Thirty, or any other piece of spy-themed entertainment," Amy Zegart told FP by email. Zegart is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and has studied the effect of "spytainment" shows like 24 and Homeland on popular opinion. "And that confusion matters.... Polling data shows that spytainment is distorting our view of what's real and what's morally right -- in statistically significant ways."

Sting of the Drone has all the characteristics of fiction that leaves a lasting impression. "Sticky ideas" -- those that last and influence the people who hear them -- "tend to be both simple and surprising, concrete, yet emotive, and presented in the form of a story," Tufts's Greenhill explains. There's a century's worth of historical precedents for fiction influencing national security, notes Greenhill, spanning from the pre-World War I "invasion literature genre" which convinced the British public that a German invasion was not only possible but imminent, through the 1983 TV miniseries The Day After that Reagan said influenced the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, to the spytainment cornucopia of the past decade. Stories that are introduced in times of national security threats are all the more likely to find a wider audience. For example, Greenhill says, "a story about terrorist threats in the post-9/11 world."

The book is "an oversimplification," Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and former special advisor to the U.N. Special Rapporteur cited in the book, told FP by phone. Sting of the Drone, she said, "will end up being part of a pop culture conversation" -- along with the blockbuster drone allegory Captain America: Winter Soldier and the new season of 24 -- in which counterterrorism policies as increasingly portrayed as "bleaker, more morally fraught."

That conversation is complicated by the blurring of fact and fiction. "Creative license is a wonderful thing, but when we're talking about real, current, and controversial intelligence programs that get at the heart of whether Americans put public trust in secret agencies, creative license should come with some responsibility," Zegart writes. "It's not a stretch to ask: How can we have a responsible public debate about critical intelligence issues when the public can't tell fact from fiction?"

* * *

Even in Sting of the Drone's third act, as the story becomes more Hollywood blockbuster than Washington thriller, the book seems to be trying to make a point. Even with all the capabilities of the vast U.S. counterterrorism community, the United States remains vulnerable to attack -- indeed, Clarke kills off a surprising number of his characters. And yet drones, his characters argue over and over again, are the only effective tools the United States has to combat this terrorist menace.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about the book: In talking to Clarke, he doesn't seem entirely convinced by his characters' frequent defenses of the drone program.

Towards the beginning of our interview, Clarke explained that "I would like, at the end of the day, the reader to say, ‘OK, I had fun reading that book, but what's Clarke's position on drones?' And not know." As our conversation ended 40 minutes later, I still didn't feel like I understood his position on drones. But had Clarke written a non-fiction book about drones, it seems that it would have been very different.

"There's a tendency sometimes to do drone strikes because they're so low risk, and a lot of instances where there have been drones where you could have done a bin Laden-style raid," Clarke said. "The thing about the drones, and the seduction of the drone, is that the whole operation can go sideways on you and no American dies."

That seduction makes drone strikes the easy answer to a lot of difficult questions. A strike can be prepped in a matter of hours, Clarke noted, as opposed to potentially weeks of training and rehearsals for special operations raids in hostile territory. The flip side of the coin, of course, is evident. Drones are a terrifyingly effective hammer, but as a senior Pakistani intelligence official told the Guardian in 2009, "The problem with the Americans is that the only instrument up their sleeve is the hammer, and they see everything as a nail."

There are costs to this approach -- though the heroes of Sting of the Drone are true believers, there are numerous incidents in the book in which intelligence is lost due to a hastily ordered strike. In at least one case, the book describes a bereaved relative of drone target being radicalized by a U.S. airstrike. And yet the protagonists are dismissive of the idea that the strikes could be fueling more terrorism or crossing ethical boundaries. "Do you think I have been putting too much emphasis on the ends and playing a little too loose with the means?" an NSC officer asks at one point. "I think we are pretty well still inside the Good Zone," his associate replies. But Clarke seems more ambivalent.

"That's one of the things I'd like people to see," Clarke told me. "When you go down this kind of path, whether it's interrogations or NSA warrantless wiretapping, or drones, you start down the path and say you're going to limit your activities and you're going to do it within some strictures, and then there are temptations. And sometimes, at least in history, governments, or people in governments succumb to the temptations that, well, you know, if we cover this little mistake up, then we can save the program and the program has some great value. Or if we just step out of the rules a little, we'll save lives, or at least we think we will."

Part of that stems from the way the drone program is divided between multiple organizations. "What I found in the White House, in three different administrations, was departments and agencies have their own interests -- regardless of what administration you're talking about, regardless of who the secretary of that department is -- and if you add up all of the interests of all of those departments and agencies, it doesn't equal the national interest," Clarke said. "Once you break the code and you realize that, you quickly come to the conclusion: It's the White House guy's role to make sure that we're doing what's in the national interest."

Sting of the Drone, Clarke said, was partly an effort to illustrate an operational -- not a moral -- equivalency between terrorist operations and the U.S. response. "Very often, the things that you do to stop terrorism exacerbate a situation and bring the target back to you. And that's the nature of the business. It's a very delicate balance and when you're in the tunnel vision of the bunker, of counterterrorism; it's difficult for that operator to see when that point is being reached. So it needs some sort of policymaker, above the operator, and above the policy operator, some higher level, that can say, ‘I think we're being counterproductive,' or ‘I think we're adopting some of the very qualities of the people we're against.'"

He pointed to a scene in the book in which the national security advisor halts all signature strikes. He "just ropes the program in," Clarke said, describing the scene. Then he paused and shrugged. "Maybe he's doing it because he thinks it's gone too far."

When asked if the drone program needs reform, though, Clarke deflected, saying the question is really a matter of when targeted killing is appropriate. "Under what circumstances are you willing to use lethal force? What risks are you willing to run, and what safeguards are you willing to impose on the use of lethal force?" he asked rhetorically.

His comments reminded me of a moment in the book in which an NSC official is having an off-the-record conversation with Duggan, the naïve journalist, and quotes the classic House of Cards non-affirmation affirmation: "As an old British TV show character used to say, ‘You might think that. I could not possibly comment.'" It's a good line: the epitome of saying something while pretending to say nothing. If only Richard Clarke would be so blunt.

In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article has accepted a job at National Security Network (NSN). Clarke is a member of NSN's board of advisors.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images