Q. Â QUANTICOshows inside knowledge of the governmentâ€™s anti-terrorism efforts. How did you become involved with these efforts?
A.Â In the summer of 2000, I attended a conference on the future of law enforcement at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia -- and what I heard and saw there was the seed that later became QUANTICO.Â
Beginning in 2002, I was asked to speak to and consult with various groups carrying out threat analyses. Nearly every branch of the government connected with defense, intelligence, and security were reaching out to hitherto untapped sources for ideas--including science fiction writers. They had all been caught by surprise on 9-11, and so they were tasking creative individuals to come up with scenarios they might not otherwise think of. Some of these conferences were open, and others were not; but the general rule was that we could use at least some of the information we acquired at the meetings (some of the scenarios discussed were too scary to reveal), but could not attribute our sources. During the first of these meetings, I made copious notes, and used them to work out details in my novel DARWINâ€™S CHILDREN -- about how government works, political divisions within Congress, public health policy, crisis response, and so on.Â
I was no stranger to policy meetings, having worked on a major space policy committee in the eighties and nineties. In an odd way, I know more about conservative politics and personalities than I do about liberals -- even though I tend to vote Democrat -- because all of these conferences were sponsored by Republican administrations, conservative-leaning law-enforcement groups, or the military.Â
Q.Â How did your connection with the FBI lead you to write QUANTICO?
A.Â I spent three days at the Academy, and was fascinated by the agents and other law enforcement folks I met during the conference. As well, I had a chance to tour the Academy, participate in training demonstrations, and hike around the grounds--beautiful woods and fields surrounding some very serious, but comfortable and well-appointed buildings. We had the privilege of staying in the dorms -- the doors are always left unlocked when you leave your room -- and eating in the FBI Cafeteria, and I took that opportunity to speak with field agents with years of experience. What I heard from them about crime, politics, and the law enforcement life really sank deep. I had met similar people, with similar levels of professional devotion, during my young days as a navy brat--my father is a retired navy officer.Â
I saw that the law enforcement personality is similar to the military personality--and in fact, the FBI and many police departments draw recruits from the military. And I thought -- thereâ€™s definitely a book here, but I wanted it to be unlike any other novel about the FBI. I began my serious research with histories of the FBI, books by and about agents, homicide investigation manuals, criminal patrol textbooks--you name it.Â
Q. What caused you to focus on bio-terrorism?
A.Â In the spring of 2002, I was asked to speak on video from Seattle to a think-tank focusing on political futures. I suggested that the accelerating revolution in biotech and genetics would soon put impressive tools and power into the hands of people unaffiliated with major institutions -- not in government, not in universities. Individuals and small groups of all sorts and all persuasions--some of whom might decide to becomebio-hackers, to coin a phrase. People who care little for computer viruses, but are passionate about reconstructing and setting loose real viruses and other agents of deadly disease.
I proposed the formation of a Biological Defense Initiative, which would promote the study of these possibilities, as well as preparing countermeasures for state-sponsored bio-terror -- and fund research to both prevent such attacks and treat the diseases that might be released. Such an initiative, in my plan, would also lead to better policies and treatments when we face natural epidemics.Â
I had two moments of twenty-twenty hindsight in 2001. When I heard that airliners had been hijacked and rammed into buildings, I immediately flashed back to all those times I had been allowed to board an airplane while carrying my Swiss Army knife. I saw very clearly how five men with pocket knives could capture an airliner -- and yet, before then, despite my flashes of concern, I had not worked through such a possibility. As if turned out, they used box-cutters.Â
At the same time, the American Anthrax attacks also occurred -- and I had a different kind of insight. I suspected that somewhere out there in the American heartland, a Timothy McVeigh-type -- a Ted Kaczynski type, might have acquired the expertise to produce weapons-grade anthrax spores through hard work, ingenuity, and the purchase of commonly available equipment and supplies.Â
I thought that the FBI and government investigators were possibly on the wrong track, going after former laboratory workers and bio-weapons professionals. I realized that such hidden, domestic terrorists--single individuals capable of making weapons of mass destruction, or SIMADs -- would become increasingly likely as the first decade of the 21st century rolled on.Â
As I did my research for QUANTICO, the problem became--would I actually write down the details to such a degree that my book could aid and abet terrorists, domestic or otherwise? Speaking with experts at Fort Detrick -- the center of the U.S. Armyâ€™s biological warfare research -- and with microbiologists, I was warned several times -- â€œdonâ€™t say that, donâ€™t write that.â€ And so I diverted and obscured key steps and important bits of information, mindful of past novels and screenplays by best-selling writers that might have inspired copy-cat incidents.Â
But of course, if my theory is correct, there is already somebody out there who didnâ€™t need my help -- and the public should be made aware of that possibility.Â
The FBI recently admitted that theyâ€™re no closer to catching or identifying Amerithrax than they were in 2001. And the â€œweaponized,â€ specialized â€œAmesâ€ strain of anthrax that they first thought they were dealing with, which experts said could only have been grown and prepared by a government-sponsored weapons lab, was no such thing--it could be from almost anywhere. It could be made by almost anyone with a little (actually, quite a lot) of technical ingenuity.Â
Perhaps already, but certainly in the near future, the manufacture of sophisticated bio-weapons will no longer be limited to government labs-- they will be by and for the masses.Â
While Iâ€™m acutely sensitive about adding one more fright to the sums of all fears, I wanted to emphasize the truth of the old World War One adage, â€œThe bullet you donâ€™t hear is the one that gets you.â€ The next terrorist incident may have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. It could easily be homegrown.Â
I wrote QUANTICO, in part, to make that bulletâ€™s report loud and clear to everybody.Â
In 2001, before 9-11, I had proposed QUANTICO to my publishers. In the meantime, we invaded Iraq and roiled the entire middle-east. The future of this effort was crystal clear to me from late 2002 on -- whatever the motivations, however idealistic the goals, because of the inexperience, blind partisanship, stubborn personalities, and divisive politics of our leaders, this elective war would not go at all well. Political passions would be inflamed around the world -- and divisions in the United States would be sharp and painful. We were entering very dangerous waters. So far, the near-future it describes is alarmingly on track.Â
Q.How did you research the forensic procedures shown in QUANTICO?
A.Â After reading textbooks on criminal procedure and crime-scene investigation--I went into a future tech mode, and from all the possibilities, selected a few practical and believable devices and techniques, some of them already in use or development. The WAGD--the so-called Death Stick germ detector -- is a miniaturized version of briefcase-sized devices in use today. It utilizes microchannel fluidics and other miniature analysis technologies that are already revolutionizing medical procedures in hospitals, homes -- and in police labs.
Other ideas -- Spider/Argus, the huge Internet-Web search center, holographic displays at crime scenes, ID-activated weapons, networked teams of agents -- many of these things are in serious development or in actual use in the military or in law enforcement. Most of the ships and weapons systems I describe in the Mecca sequence are either already deployed, under construction, or in development. (I speak to rocket scientists, as well...)Â
Q. QUANTICOdepicts rogue individuals and militia-style groups as two domestic terror sources. Do you feel these are Americaâ€™s greatest threats?
A. We face a lot of threats -- so many that itâ€™s easy to ignore Pogoâ€™s great truth -- â€œWe have met the enemy, and he is us.â€ Americans are passionate about democracy, politics, individual rights -- and security. Sometimes we get a little crazy, weâ€™re so passionate -- and once we start a fight, weâ€™re reluctant to back down or give up. The tension levels can drive unbalanced people right over the edge -- witness our own native-born terrorists.
Q. To your knowledge, are there any such domestic sources of which we are currently aware?
A.Â Of course -- we have unbalanced people aplenty in our midst. Eco-terrorists, animal rights extremists, racists and white-supremacists, anti-abortion bombers and assassins--military-trained anti-government activists, computer crime wannabes, and those elusive potential bio-hackers.
Every day, weâ€™re just a headline away from a potential New World Order. We have to stay smart, stay focused, work with each other in a non-partisan, non-bullying way -- and yet, not let go of our dreams -- not overreact and damage or destroy whatâ€™s best about our country.Â
Above all, in these difficult times, we must be very careful about who we elect to the highest office in the land. Even the most valiant wars are unwinnable with fools as commanding officers.Â
Q.How do these domestic dangers compare with the dangers we face from international sources?
ÂA. Because weâ€™re on top of the world, economically and militarily, we have to be very smart, very transparent -- and well aware of our weaknesses, including our ignorance.Â We canâ€™t underestimate our adversaries, the dangers we might face--nor can we afford to throw aside our allies. Weâ€™re in the most difficult time of any nationâ€™s history -- weâ€™re the biggest and the best. But are we the brightest? I think so -- but along the way, weâ€™re going to be dealt some serious blows, out of envy, out of greed, out of hatred. Making more enemies than allies--going it alone and making people hate or mistrust us, for no good reason -- is a terrible strategy.Â
Q.Is the government prepared to stop such an individual as you depict in QUANTICO?
A.Â Protecting the public demands flexibility in the face of repeated failures. Slowly, too slowly, the United States is putting together the right mix of agencies and individuals to protect us -- and a balance of laws to protect our liberties -- but we have an enormous distance to travel before we can even begin to feel secure, if thatâ€™s ever going to be possible.Â
Domestic terror changes with the decades, but itâ€™s still more familiar -- and probably far more controllable -- than foreign terror. We know these home-grown monsters well -- some of them fervently believe what our historical leaders used to believe, and even what some modern politicians tell them they should believe.Â
When it was popular to smear the federal government as the nationâ€™s biggest problem, the bane of American existence -- Timothy McVeigh came along and blew up a federal building, children and all. When citizens call for the assassination of doctors and the destruction of family planning clinics, there are men who will step forward to carry out their darkest wishes.Â When animal rights and ecological correctness trump human right and human life, fanatics are there to threaten, burn, and bomb.Â
And law enforcement is left to clean up the mess. Terror arises from political failures, but it also comes out of unresolved problems, unresolved hatred -- and these must not be allowed to taint our solutions.Â
Politicians who play to the worst passions of American society should know what the consequences can be -- and take responsibility. The monsters America breeds could, in the near future, kill millions -- without nuclear weapons.Â
Q.Does the government seem to be doing anything to improve the situations?
A. Â Government agencies charged with our protection are always trying to make us more secure, to improve our response to threats -- even to try to anticipate the threats. And I wrote QUANTICO in that spirit -- we make mistakes, sometimes awful mistakes, but we correct course and move on.Â
But the job isnâ€™t easy--and the only way we know to improve things when they go terribly wrong is to kick the sons of bitches out, and put the bastards in -- as Ray Bradbury puts it. Checks and balances arenâ€™t a weakness -- theyâ€™re a necessity.Â
One-party rule is a guarantee of incompetence, corruption -- disaster.Â
Itâ€™s a truism about Washington DC that one day it looks as if everything in the nationâ€™s capital has been that way forever -- like a concrete river that flows one direction. Then, the next day, the voters rise up and speak, and the river changes course, and soon it looks as if itâ€™s always flowed that way.Â
Q.Is the shift of power in Washington more likely to help or hurt the situation?
A.Â Both help and hurt -- of course. The new kids on the block have to learn or re-learn how to govern, work with their opposition, in short -- lead, not follow. Democracy is a herky-jerky affair. Both sides, both parties -- people of many different political persuasions--have concerns and talents that contribute to the greater efficiency and survival of the whole.Â
Q.You have a very unusual character in your novel, whose genetic heritage helps him elude modern forensic detection. Is this possible?
A. Â Without going into too many details â€“ spoilers -- the answer is almost certainly yes.Â
Q.How can the average individual become better informed concerning the sort of dangers outlined in QUANTICO, and what is being done to address them?
A.Â Read! Read as much as you have time for. Put wrinkles on your brain. Subscribe to two or more newspapers or news journals. Listen to two or more TV newscasts -- on different networks. Subscribe to a scientific journal or two or three. Keep informed -- and stay flexible. Things are going to change, and new dangers -- unanticipated dangers -- have been the hallmark of the past century.Â
Keep an open mind -- and donâ€™t get left behind to clean up after the elephant parade.
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