Clear and Present Danger is a novel by Tom Clancy, written in 1989, and is a canonical part of the Ryanverse. In the novel, Ryan is thrown into the position of CIA Acting Deputy Director (Intelligence) and discovers that he is being kept in the dark by his colleagues who are conducting a covert war against the Medellín Cartel based in Colombia. The title of the book is based on the legal phrase "clear and present danger".
The United States Coast Guard cutter Panache intercepts a yacht in the Caribbean Sea, discovering two Hispanic males cleaning up after executing a man and his family. Through a mock execution, the Coast Guardsmen coerce the executioners to confess to the grisly murders. However, it is later learned that the murdered man was part of a money laundering scheme within the Medellín Cartel; upon further investigation, it is discovered he had laundered and embezzled approximately $650,000,000 in US Dollars.
The details of the expedition quickly percolate up to the office of the (unnamed) President, who calls for a change of direction in the War on Drugs. The incumbent president feels compelled to take drastic measures against the drug trade in the United States because election-year mudslinging has revealed his failure to generate returns on campaign promises regarding the drug-trafficking in the United States. The President's challenger, J. Robert Fowler, has rallied the public behind the administration's failure to curb the drug trade, and forces them to take a harder, more active stance against drug importation.
In order to combat the source of drugs, the President feels that initiating covert operations within Colombia is the most efficient response. The CIA concocts a bold plan involving a sudden step-up of airborne-interdiction operations against aircraft believed to be entering US airspace with the intent to distribute narcotics. In order to positively verify targets, the CIA also dispatches US soliders to infiltrate Colombian territory and visually stake-out small airstrips dispatching and receiving drug-trafficking aircraft. The units, verifying and reporting departing drug flights, dismantle and destroy the airstrips after the aircraft is shot down or captured.
Three major players help the plan reach fruition:
Operation: CAPER was the covert-dispatching of SIGINT-gathering units to Colombia to intercept communications between Cartel management. The primary mode of communication were cellular phones, which at the time of the book's authoring, were new devices that many felt were impossible to intercept because of their ability to be moved and reprogrammed. It was also the communications arm for Operation: SHOWBOAT and the light-fighters' only means of contact with the outside world. John Clark was dispatched with CAPER to coordinate the effort.
EAGLE EYE involved dispatching F-15s to intercept drug flights verified as originating from Colombia, and positively identified as carrying narcotics. These drug flights were scouted by a completely hispanic light infantry force which had been drawn from the various units that the U.S. Army had at the time of the novel. These included the 7th and 25th and the 10th Mountain Infantry Divisions (Light). The interdiction flights were primarily executed by United States Air Force Captain Jeff "Bronco" Winters. His primary craft at the time was an F-15C Eagle. He splashed at least four aircraft, two with missile fire, and caused another one to crash into the ocean by flying straight at it. He forced others to land, where the pilots were met by members of the Marine Corps Force Recon and were interrogated for more information regarding the Cartel.
These soldiers were the bulk of Operation: SHOWBOAT. The soldiers were seconded from American-based infantry battalions, and were all Hispanic in order to blend in with the local population without suspicion. The infantrymen were tasked with scouting out landing sites discovered by CIA operative Carlos Larson and reporting on departure times and tail numbers of aircraft using the airfields to refuel, allowing the EAGLE EYE team to intercept them.
Operation: RECIPROCITY was the fourth and completely separate operation formed as a part of the new War on Drugs. As the name suggests, it is a vengeful, reciprocal attack on Cartel operations as a result of the assassination of sitting FBI Director Emil Jacobs, the Director of the DEA and the US Ambassador to Colombia during a visit to the Attorney-General of Colombia. This assassination is the infamous scene in the Clear and Present Danger film.
The assassination is made possible by one Cuban national by the name of Félix V. Cortez. Cortez is a former member of the Cuban DGI—The Cuban equivalent of the Soviet KGB—in the employ of the Cartel, and specifically, one Ernesto Escobedo, as their Chief of Security and intelligence operative/analyst. Cortez has managed to turn the widowed personal aide of Director Jacobs, Moira Wolfe, into an unknowing agent by feigning romantic interest. She inadvertently reveals information regarding the date and time of Jacobs' official visit. Cortez faithfully delivers this information to the Cartel, who had become more and more wary of missing drug flights. The Cartel management orders Jacobs's assassination as retaliation for Operation Tarpon, which seized hundreds of millions of dollars of cartel money. Cortez is infuriated with the plan, as it means his source is no longer of any use.
After Jacobs, the US Ambassador and several other Americans who are part of the protective detail and delegation are killed in an assault on their convoy, Operation: RECIPROCITY begins. This phase involves the tasking of a carrier-borne A-6 Intruder ground-attack aircraft and a single laser-guided bomb to covertly bomb the meeting location discovered by CAPER intercepts. The planners intend to keep the bombing secret, and give the impression of a car-bomb, due to the political unrest in the region caused by disillusioned Marxist militiamen part of M-19. In order to further this belief, the bomb is a precision-guided munition with a delayed fuse. To further hide the fact that it is an air-dropped bomb, they use a bomb with a case made out of cellulose, which has been designed for use on stealth aircraft. This casing will be consumed in the blast and there will be no fragmentation. Unfortunately, one piece of oversight tipped Felix Cortez off to some, most likely American, military involvement in the assassination attempt: the use of Octol as the explosive and catalyst.
Jack Ryan slowly becomes more and more aware of the events surrounding the activities in Colombia, and instantly becomes suspicious of the Agency. As acting Deputy Director of the Intelligence Directorate, Ryan should be privy to most operations, but he can tell he is being left out of something, and suspects it is related to Colombia. After his long-time friend Commander Jackson inquires about Agency activity in the region, Ryan goes to Judge Moore and demands an explanation. Moore avoids explaining the situation, but orders Ryan to withhold the information from the Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committee, and thus being ordered to break the law.
Cortez, meanwhile, discovers the true nature of the villa bombing after another airstrike hits a house in Colombia. However, he keeps this information from the Cartel out of pure self-motivation. He plans on creating a war within the Cartel that will leave him in a position to seize power. He also learns of the American troops in Colombia, and orders large groups of Cartel mercenaries to hunt them down and execute them. Cortez’s plan was genius because it would not only kill the Americans and neutralize their threat, but would also silence many soldiers and mules loyal to the Cartel leadership, who might try to block his rise to power. He finally comes into contact with Vice Admiral Cutter, and blackmails him with the knowledge of the operation. He demands an end to the operation, but promises an intra-Cartel war that will slow drug importation into the United States. Cutter cedes to the demand, and agrees to arrange a meeting with Cortez after cutting off support for the SHOWBOAT teams.
Cutter then flies to Panama and meets with Cortez, who are secretly being shadowed. Jack Ryan, along with CIA operatives John Clark and Carlos Larson have staged into Panama with a helicopter (a MH-53 Pave Low) and it's partnered tanker (a MC-130 Combat Talon) from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field. Dan Murray has been dropped off on the Panache to obtain their assistance as a "last resort" landing platform in case the helicopter can't make it back to Panama. They also shadow Cutter's meeting with Cortez for later use. Cutter cuts off support for the American soldiers on the ground and terminates SHOWBOAT. John Clark is outraged at this abandonment of the troops in Colombia, and with Jack Ryan, and the Air Force personnel plans a rescue operation. Clark hits it off with the helicopter's pilot, Colonel Paul Johns, a fellow Vietnam veteran.
Clark flies into Colombia with Larson to make radio contact with the teams to warn them of the Cartel operations and advise them of alternate pickup points. While doing this, Clark is flying overhead as one of the teams, Team KNIFE is virtually wiped out. Only a few survivors, including Domingo Chavez escape. Clark advises Chavez that he will meet them the next day at a rendezvous point, and Chavez agrees.
John Clark flies into Colombia the next day to meet with Chavez' band of surivivors and picks them up in a van. Jack Ryan flies in later that night on the Air Force helicopter and picks up the surviving team members. This group, together with Clark and Chavez's group launch a raid on the cartel operation's command post, capturing Escobedo and Cortez. The group then flies to extract the remaining ground team. During this extraction the team and the helicopter come under heavy fire. It is during this that the helicopter's crew chief is mortally wounded. Comforting the dying man, Ryan makes a promise to take care of his family. Due to a hurricane, and some damage to the helicopter, Colonel Johns makes a landing on the deck of the Panache, a landing that takes all of his skill as a pilot. Cutter who has flown back to Panama upon finding out that a rescue operation is under way is made to believe that the helicopter crashed in the mountains during the storm. He flies back to Washington believing that the matter is closed.
Before leaving Colombia, Escobedo is returned by Ryan and Clark to his fellow Cartel members who are led to believe that it was he who was conducting the assassination attempts. While it is not said, it is implied that the druglords will kill him.
In the aftermath of the operation, James Cutter commits suicide to avoid prison by stepping out in front of a speeding Metrobus. Cortez is returned to Cuban hands, where he is a marked traitor, and the officer who greets him states that they "have much to talk about". Ryan then meets with and confronts the President, who insists what he did is right. Ryan responds that despite his classifying the drug cartel as a “clear and present danger,” what he did is illegal, and he (Ryan) must brief Congress. Finally, in the November election, the President's opponent, Bob Fowler, wins the presidency.
The second theme permeating the story is loyalty. How can one choose whom to be loyal to in an imperfect world with no black and white, only shades of grey? While believing in radically different ideologies, these questions are central to the thoughts of Ryan, who is being kept in the dark, and his counterpart on the other side, Félix Cortez, who receives much less respect than he believes he deserves from his criminal masters.
Characters in Clear and Present Danger, such as Ernesto Escobedo, and parts of the plot are similar to that of real-life drug lord Pablo Escobar. In addition to naming, similarities include a suspected assassination (or, in the book, assassination attempt) by the United States government.