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Dr. Michael G. Vickers’ career as a special operator, CIA operations officer, national security policy maker and Intelligence Community leader spanned the last two decades of the Cold War through a decade and a half of our war with al-Qaeda, its allies and its offshoots – service that saw unprecedented senior tenure across Republican and Democratic administrations.
From 2011 to 2015, Dr. Vickers served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, exercising authority, direction and control over the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Security Service, and the intelligence components of the Military Services and Combatant Commands.
As the USD(I), he conceived and led a comprehensive transformation of defense intelligence capabilities, encompassing the signals intelligence system and overhead space architecture, penetrating and persistent remotely piloted aircraft, the Department’s strategic human intelligence posture, its corps of all-source analysts, and its cyber operations forces.
From 2007 to 2011, he served as the first and only Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low-Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities. As the ASD SO/LIC&IC, Dr. Vickers was the “Service” Secretary for all Special Operations Forces and had policy oversight of all of DoD’s operational capabilities – strategic forces (nuclear forces, missile defense, space, cyber), conventional force transformation (air, ground and maritime), and Special Operations Forces.
He conceived and led the largest expansion of Special Operations Forces in our nation’s history and oversaw several other major capability investments ranging from next generation long-range strike to undersea warfare to deter future great power war.
Throughout his nearly decade-long service as a national security policy maker and Intelligence Community leader, Dr. Vickers was heavily involved in operations. He was a key operational strategist for the campaign to dismantle and defeat core al-Qaeda and played a major policy and planning role in the operation that killed Usama bin Ladin. He oversaw counterterrorism operations in multiple countries and a wide range of other operations, from the surge of forces in Afghanistan to sensitive intelligence collection operations, paramilitary support to opposition forces battling despotic regimes, operations against rogue state nuclear weapons and missile programs, and operations against drug cartels.
During the decade and a half that spanned the operational phase of his career, he served as a Special Forces Green Beret weapons and engineer sergeant, as the commander of a classified counterterrorism unit, and as CIA operations officer. As a Special Forces soldier and officer, he was trained to parachute behind Soviet lines with a “backpack” nuclear weapon and led hostage rescue operations and sensitive intelligence collection operations. As a CIA officer, he played key roles in the invasion of Grenada, the US government’s operational response to the Beirut bombings, and the covert effort to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan.
As the principal strategist for the multi-billion-dollar Afghanistan covert action program – the largest and most successful covert action program in CIA’s history – Dr. Vickers developed the winning strategy when very few thought it was possible to win. His contributions to the first war the Red Army had ever lost and US victory in the Cold War were chronicled in the film and New York Times best seller, Charlie Wilson’s War.
Dr. Vickers has received the nation’s highest awards in the fields of intelligence and defense, including the Presidential National Security Medal and the OSS Society’s William J. Donovan Award. He holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. from the University of Alabama.
He currently serves as an Executive Vice President at In-Q-Tel, a Principal with the Telemus Group, and a senior advisor to the Boston Consulting Group. He also serves on several corporate boards, including BAE Systems, General Atomics, FedData, and Orbis Operations, and several non-profit and government boards.
Dr. Vickers is the author of “By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy.’
Dr. Vickers was interviewed by Paul Davis.
Editor’s Note: The interview took place prior to the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.
IACSP: I read your memoir, and I enjoyed it. You’ve led an interesting life, from an enlisted Green Beret to a CIA officer to the assistant secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Why did you write the book and what takeaways from the book you hope your readers will glean from it?
Vickers: I wrote it for three reasons. One of them is that I played a part in some major historical events; the covert action program that we drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s as a CIA officer, our campaign against al Qaeda around the world between 2007 and 2015, and the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. So I felt that I had a duty to history to write about that from the operator level to the policy maker level. And secondly, after several decades, we are able to tell a little more about secret operations. For the public in a democracy, if you want to maintain your support for American foreign policy, the most important thing is to share what you can. Where we did well, where we didn’t, and what we learned, etcetera.
Finally, I wanted to pass on what I could to future generations of special operators, intelligence officers and national security professionals. Some of the best things that stand a chance at keeping America number one.
IACSP: What made you want to become a Green Beret and later a CIA officer?
Vickers: I thought that being a Green Beret was interesting in its own right, but then also it would provide a path to being a CIA officer. I wanted something different where an individual could really make a difference. I was intrigued by national security, and I wanted to make a contribution there. Something that would combine adventure and intellectual challenges and test me to the utmost. So I went into Special Forces.
IACSP: Did you become a CIA Officer for the same reasons?
Vickers: Yes. The CIA was kind of the front lines of the Cold War and where one can make a difference. So when I was ready after I got my degree, I had been enlisted and then an officer, so I thought the time was right to become a CIA officer.
IACSP: I found your account in the book of the covert operation to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan to be really interesting. I previously saw the movie about the operation, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Can you give us a brief overview of the covert operation?
Vickers: Sure. The Soviets staged a communist coup in Afghanistan in April of 1978 and the situation deteriorated as Afghanistan is not the easiest place to introduce communism. The Soviets recognized the situation, so they invaded over Christmas 1979. President Carter signed a Lethal Finding after the Soviet invasion, and the CIA began providing weapons and other assistance to the Afghan resistance within ten days of the invasion. The war and Soviet occupation lasted almost ten years and then they withdrew in February of 1989, but the first five years of the war, which spanned President Carter and most of President Reagan’s first term, the objective was just to make the Soviet occupation as costly as possible.
As the movie showed, Congressman Charlie Wilson gave a lot more money to the CIA in 1984, quadrupled it, and that led to a series of events such as President Reagan changing our mission to driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. And we gave a lot more to the Afghan resistance, eventually culminating to the U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missile. There was dramatically more assistance, and we escalated at the same time as the Soviets did in 1985, and by early 1986, General Secretary Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, started aiming to withdraw from Afghanistan and then completed that three years later.
This was a decisive battle of the Cold War. It helped to bring an end to the Soviet Empire. It didn’t do it by itself, but it was the only defeat the Red Army in its history.
IACSP: I’ve always thought that our helping to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan was payback for the Soviets supporting the North Vietnamese against us in the Vietnam War.
Vickers: That’s certainly how Charlie Wilson saw it. It was also strategic in a sense in that they had made themselves vulnerable. So it was a unique opportunity and there were also geostrategic concerns that they might not stop at Afghanistan.
IACSP: Another fascinating account in your book was your involvement in the takedown of bin Laden. Can you tell our readers about your involvement in this historical event?
Vickers: Sure. I was the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, and for part of the period, I was Assistant Secretary for Defense for Special Operations and lots of other things…
IACSP: Yeah, that is a long title.
Vickers: Long, long, long title. We had a long hunt for Osama bin Laden. We lost him in Tora Bora in December of 01, and then we finally found him by tracking his courier back to the house where bin Laden was in Abbottabad in late August in 2010, almost nine years after he escaped from Afghanistan. We worked on the intelligence case for the rest of 2010. It was the biggest secret in Washington and there were only four of us in the Department of Defense briefed on it; the Secretary of Defense, me, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs and the Vice Chairman. Right around Christmas time, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates told CIA Director Leon Panetta that we ought to start developing options. So I was brought to CIA to work with them, you know, a former CIA officer and the head of our special operations, to start developing options ranging from a V-2 airstrike to various kinds of ways. And then we started taking those to the NSC Deputies and Principals, the immediate set up cabinet officials, and then to the cabinet officials, such as the Secretaries of Defense and State, etcetera. We developed five options including work with the Pakistanis, or by air, or by a raid.
Initially, President Obama and a lot of the top leaders said an air strike and then shifted to the idea of a special operations raid by late March. So we refined that plan and worked it and went to all of the rehearsals that we had and continued to make the case of why we should do this. So my role was more of a policy role in the White House, describing the special operations and the intelligence community. Getting the intelligence and why this was the best way to do it. The reason we chose the raid was because, one, it had the least chance of killing innocent civilians by dropping a lot of bombs on the house, which would not only kill the kids, the wives but also the neighbors. Second, it was give us proof. If we just bombed the city in Pakistan, there would be all kinds of what are you doing? Whereas if you actually had bin Laden’s body and the DNA, you could make the case. So that was ultimately what the president decided.
IACSP: As someone who led the effort to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan, what is your view of President Biden’s abrupt withdrawal?
Vickers: Well, I didn’t think it was a good decision. Of course, President Trump had made a deal the Taliban in 2020. I think it was a mistake. We sent a real bad signal to our allies, and two, over time, it raises our terrorism threat to our country. We had transitioned the war essentially to the Afghans, so as long we provided a small footprint of advisors and intelligence professionals and backed that up with air power as necessary, the Taliban could never win. It was a frustrating stalemate. It was a long war, but a denied victory is better than losing a war in my view.
IACSP: Do you agree with the U.S. support of Ukraine’s fight against the Russians?
Vickers: I do. I think that like Afghanistan in the 1980s, it’s a chance to really weaken Russia. The Ukrainian people have a threat to their existence, and they fought remarkable well. And you can look at it in cold investment terms of indirect conflict, as they are doing the fighting. It is a relative bargain to set back the Russian army, who is an ally of China. It sends a good signal that we stand behind allies and partners.
IACSP: Today we have the Defense Department and the CIA primarily working against China and Russia. Has counterterrorism taken a back seat? In your view, is terrorism still a major threat, and if so, what should the DOD and the CIA be doing about it?
Vickers: The thing we don’t want to have happen is another 9/11. So we don’t need to have big wars in the Middle East. We don’t need to do nation building in countries we invaded. But we do need to make sure we keep the global Jihadist terrorist threat down. That requires the presence of intelligence personnel, the Predator aircraft that we use, and the armed reconnaissance drone. You could do that at a reasonable low cost. Counterterrorism is not just in the Middle East and South Asia, but Africa and Southeast Asia, with a global network of partners, working with security services throughout the world.
And you can do that and China and Russia and North Korea and Iran at the same time. Because some of these things are fungible. The forces that you develop to deter China are also applicable to Russia, Iran and North Korea. Things you need for counterterrorism are inexpensive by comparison. It is not a lot of big military equipment. There is a cost to CIA in terms of having enough people to cover it in different countries, but they can also use those platforms that are used against the Chinese and Russians as well. It not an either/or. Yes, terrorism is not the central focus, as we don’t want to ignore China and Russia. But we also don’t want to go back to the pre-9/11 days when we were not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough and we had something on the scale of 9/11.
IACSP: Thank you for your service and thank you for speaking to us.