Michael G. Vickers, A Man Behind the Hunt for Al Qaeda

Michael G. Vickers (born 1953) was confirmed as the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2011. Before becoming USD-I, Vickers served as United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. 

He is a former Army Special Forces non-commissioned officer and officer, as well as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary operations officer from their elite Special Activities Division.

While in the CIA, he played a key role in the arming of the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His role is featured in George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War, and in the 2007 movie adaptation in which he is played by actor Christopher Denham.
Every day, Michael G. Vickers gets an update on how many in Al Qaeda’s senior leadership the United States has removed from the battlefield, and lately there has been much to report. Al Qaeda’s No. 2 died in a C.I.A. drone strike late last month, another senior commander was taken out in June, and the Navy Seals made history when they dispatched Osama bin Laden in May.

“I just want to kill those guys,” Mr. Vickers likes to say in meetings at the Pentagon, with a grin.

Mr. Vickers’s preoccupation — “my life,” he says — is dismantling Al Qaeda. Underneath an owlish exterior, he is an ex-Green Beret and former C.I.A. operative with an exotic past. His title is under secretary of defense for intelligence, and he has risen to become one of the top counterterrorism officials in Washington.

As covert American wars — in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — continue in the second decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, so will the questions of legality, morality and risk that go along with them. 
Mr. Vickers, a top adviser to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta who has helped shape American military and intelligence policy for three decades, knows the perils well. He bears some responsibility for the unintended consequences of helping arm the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, only to have them turn their weapons against United States troops years later.

In recent months, it was Mr. Vickers, an administration official said, who helped persuade a cautious Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, to go along with the Bin Laden raid. It was Mr. Vickers who was a driver behind two other covert American military operations, in Syria and Pakistan, which killed more than two dozen militants in late 2008. It was Mr. Vickers who made sure that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal had enough drones at his disposal when he ran the military’s Special Operations Command, which staged secret raids in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We had one Predator available to us, and we built an entire fleet of them,” General McChrystal, now retired, said in a recent interview. “He was a major player.”

Mostly unknown outside of Washington, Mr. Vickers, 58, had a moment of fame in the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” based on the book by George Crile. Mr. Vickers was portrayed as a chess-playing nerd from the 1980s C.I.A. who armed the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, still the largest covert operation in the agency’s history.
Although the chess was artistic license (Mr. Vickers recently spent his spare time finishing what his academic adviser, Eliot A. Cohen, calls a 1,000-plus page “cinderblock of a dissertation” for a doctorate), the rest is, for better or for worse, accurate. During the Reagan administration, Mr. Vickers funneled weapons to, among others, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, both now morphed into Afghan insurgent leaders who are fighting the United States.

“Yes, most of my colleagues from those days are now on the dark side,” Mr. Vickers acknowledged in a recent interview in his antiseptic office. “We were well aware that they weren’t the ideal allies.” Nonetheless, he said, “You make a deal with the devil to defeat another devil.”

The devil these days is Al Qaeda, and Mr. Vickers is more cautious than Mr. Panetta in declaring it on the verge of collapse. (The defense secretary said in July that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.”) In Mr. Vickers’s assessment, there are perhaps four important Qaeda leaders left in Pakistan, and 10 to 20 leaders over all in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Even if the United States kills them all in drone strikes, Mr. Vickers said, “You still have Al Qaeda, the idea.”
“You’re never going to eradicate that, but you want to take away their ability to be this global threat,” he said. “So yes, it is possible. It will take time.”

Mr. Vickers, despite his zeal for hunting terrorists, looks like a buttoned-up tax lawyer, or at least someone unlikely to know a Stinger missile from a Kalashnikov, two weapons he lavished upon the mujahedeen.

Interview with Michael G Vickers
Interview with Michael G Vickers (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities Special Operations Technology) - by Jeff McKaughan, November 14, 2007

Q: Good morning, Mr. Vickers. First of all, although it was several months ago, congratulations on the confirmation to the job. There has been shifting and tweaking of the role and office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict. Can you give me an overview of the office today and what its purpose and missions are?

A: Thank you very much. My responsibilities have been expanded substantially as a result of the reorganization of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy [OUSDP]. I am the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, or ASD [SO/LIC&IC]. As such, I am the senior civilian advisor to the secretary of defense and deputy secretary of defense on the operational employment and future capabilities of special operations forces, strategic forces and conventional forces. While, per Title 10, Section 138, of the U.S. Code, oversight of special operations remains my principal duty, I now have oversight over all of the department’s core warfighting forces. I am also the senior civilian advisor on counterterrorism strategy, irregular warfare and force transformation, and serve as a senior advisor on U.S. policy toward several key countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and China. Regional ASDs, of course, have the lead with respect to these countries but SO/LIC&IC provides functional expertise. I also serve as a special advisor on various sensitive activities. This expanded scope has produced a number of important synergies in terms of oversight of the department’s core operational capabilities, and has significantly increased the office’s overall effectiveness.

Q: Do you see that purpose and those missions remaining as they are or are there still some adjustments that need or should be made? Will or should there be any changes to the structure and organization of the office?

A: Future administrations will determine for themselves whether the expanded influence that has come with this new organization is worth retaining, or, if it is, whether this is the best way to organize ourselves to achieve this objective. There may be alternative ways of achieving similar effects. I would be happy to provide my thoughts to the next administration and the Congress on this at an appropriate time. I made a few minor organizational adjustments early in my tenure—to consolidate oversight of all special operations activities and resources under one deputy assistant secretary, and to strengthen oversight of conventional capabilities and capabilities integration—but I think we’re now pretty much done with structure and organizational change to the office for the remainder of this administration.

Q: How difficult is it for USSOCOM to be a supporting command in one instant and then a supported command in the next. Where is the decision made as to the lead for a particular event, mission, or operation?

A: You may want to refer that question to Admiral Olson—USSOCOM commander. However, from my point of view, there is clear guidance for the department to follow with respect to USSOCOM’s supported and supporting roles. The 2004 Unified Command Plan, which President Bush signed in March 2005, designated USSOCOM as the lead combatant command for planning and synchronization of global military operations against terrorist networks. However, actual mission execution in most instances is still conducted by geographic combatant commanders. More precisely, in accordance with Title 10 USC section 167: a special operations activity or mission shall be conducted under the command of the commander of the unified combatant command in whose geographic area the activity or mission is to be conducted. Only in certain instances, would commander USSOCOM execute a mission; specifically, he will exercise command of a selected special operations mission if directed by the president or the secretary of defense. USSOCOM, I would add, also has to balance its new warfighting role, whether supported or supporting, with its traditional force provider role, but I think they do both superbly.

Q: What role does your office have in developing the plan for a Special Operations Command Africa?

A: Senior officials from the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy have played major roles in standing up AFRICOM. Our deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, Theresa Whelan, has been our point person, and, I would add, has done a magnificent job. The principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Ryan Henry, has also been heavily engaged in the AFRICOM project. SO/LIC&IC serves in an oversight capacity in the development of Special Operations Command Africa. Special Operations Command Europe is leading the department’s effort in this area, and is doing great work. SOC AFRICOM will make major contributions to advance U.S. interests.

Q: Although the budget issues are being worked as we speak, can you give us some insight into the key factors that are driving the USSOCOM budget? RDT&E funding is down about 40 percent from the $593 million in FY06. Procurement has remained a little steadier, only down about 4 percent from FY06.

A: Key factors driving USSOCOM’s FY 2008 budget are the historically unmatched growth in USSOCOM and the associated costs to recruit, train and equip this larger force. We are increasing personnel by approximately 6,000 in FY 2008; adding manpower to Special Forces groups, the Ranger Regiment, SEAL units, a Predator squadron, civil affairs units, psychological operations units, and the special operations aviation regiment. This larger force requires more dollars in the USSOCOM budget to expand the infrastructure needed to recruit, train, equip and house the additional service members. In order to be consistent in our budget comparisons, we decided to use our 2006 and 2008 president’s budget [PB] submissions as our baseline. Using the PB as a baseline: The 40 percent decrease in RDT&E is reflective of a comparison between previous years’ appropriated funds and the current year budgeted amount. Previous year appropriated funds takes into account over $150 million per fiscal year in Congressional earmarks and programs that have shifted from the R&D phase to the procurement phase. If you compare PB to PB the RDT&E account has decreased by approximately 22 percent from $484 million in FY 2006 to $374 million in FY2008. This decrease reflects programs such as the CV-22 and the advanced tactical laser advanced concept technology demonstration completing one phase of the acquisition process and transitioning to the next.

USSOCOM procurement has actually increased by approximately 32 percent, from $1.2 billion in the FY 2006 PB to $1.8 billion in the FY 2008 PB. The primary drivers of this increase are CV-22B modifications, the MC-130H Combat Talon II wing boxes, SOF tanker modifications, non-standard aviation to support theater special operations commands, and other C-130 modifications.

Operations and maintenance has increased by approximately 32 percent from $2.2 billion in the FY 2006 PB to approximately $3.3 billion in the FY 2008 PB. This increase supports the continued expansion of the force to meet the demands of countering global terrorism. Activities in various forms of combat, intelligence and communication operational support have increased.

Military construction has increased by approximately 74 percent from $174.5 million the FY 2006 PB to $675.7 million in the FY2008 PB. These dollars add academic instruction facilities, operations facilities, billets, equipment facilities, aircraft parking ramps and other necessary facilities.

Q: What are your program oversight responsibilities for advanced technology development programs?

A: We oversee a number of advanced technology programs. Among these programs are the Combating Terrorism Technology Support Office [CTTSO], SO/LIC&IC advanced development, and humanitarian demining R&D initiatives. We have oversight, executive direction, and responsibility for DoD sponsorship for the Technical Support Working Group [TSWG], which is part of the CTTSO.

The TSWG is a stand-alone interservice, interagency and international working group that conducts national R&D programs for combating terrorism. TSWG is a user-driven organization tasked with rapidly developing the newest technologies for warfighters and first-responders to combat terrorist activities. TSWG operates across the four pillars of combating terrorism: antiterrorism, counterterrorism, intelligence and consequence management. TSWG has been developing these capabilities for two decades.

Our oversight ensures that these programs continue to focus on the quick development of solutions to rapidly evolving requirements of GWOT that might otherwise go unmet. Leveraging our traditional strong relationships, we can take operational requirements directly from warfighters, incorporate policy objectives of the Department of Defense, and enable technical experts to develop and provide capabilities that are rapidly fielded and pertinent to our special operations and conventional forces.

Our advanced development programs develop and demonstrate prototype technologies in an operational environment in order to assess and validate technological maturity and military utility. Our explosive ordnance disposal/low-intensity conflict project provides advanced technology and equipment solutions for military EOD operators and special operations forces to meet the challenges of improvised explosive devices.

We also have the irregular warfare support [IWS] project. The IWS project leverages ongoing research efforts of USSOCOM, the military departments, defense agencies, and other federal agencies to analyze, modify, design, and demonstrate enduring counterinsurgency and counterterrorism technical and operational capabilities.

We also execute cooperative R&D initiatives focusing on combating terrorism with many partner nations. We have long-standing agreements with the United Kingdom, Israel and Canada. In 2006 we also added agreements with Australia and Singapore. These international partnerships allow the U.S. to leverage foreign experience, expertise and resources in the global fight against terrorists and their infrastructure.

The oversight SO/LIC&IC provides to these important DoD, interagency, and international efforts ensures that our forces get the advanced technology and capabilities they need to fight the GWOT.

Q: Much has been made of ensuring that special operations keeps a balance between their capability to conduct kinetic operations and the desire to carry-out operations without the use of lethal force if possible. What are some of the factors that your office considers in this equation?

A: The principal balance that needs to be achieved is not so much between kinetic and non-kinetic as it is between direct and indirect approaches—i.e., what we do ourselves and what we do by, with and through others. USSOCOM’s indirect capabilities will be increasingly central to the global war on terrorism.

While resources devoted to USSOCOM’s indirect capabilities have increased substantially since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we need to ensure that this part of the portfolio is fully resourced, at both the service and USSOCOM levels, and that a proper balance is achieved between these two complementary approaches.

Resourcing our direct and indirect capabilities should not be allowed to become a zero-sum game, however—resources should not simply be shifted from the direct side to the indirect. USSOCOM’s direct capabilities are absolutely vital and must remain fully resourced. Our direct forces engage in indirect operations, and our indirect forces engage in direct operations, so it’s a more complicated picture than often portrayed.

Q: Would some of these issues be addressed if all civil affairs and PSYOP units were still under the direct control of a special operations command?

A: Civil affairs and psychological operations units are key enablers for the total force, not just special operations. The DoD civil affairs force now consists of elements from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and support both special and conventional operations.

Likewise, psychological operations forces support both general purpose forces [GPF] and SOF. As the GPF take on a larger role in irregular warfare, the department will likely require additional CA/PSYOP capacity to support both SOF and GPF. The joint staff is conducting an analysis of CA/PSYOP requirements within a study on irregular warfare in time for the next program objective memorandum. We will review the results of this study and work with the joint staff, the services and the combatant commands to determine the shortfalls and how best to address them.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges your office and special operations face in the next 12 months?

A: The overarching challenge will be to implement the direction provided in the 2006 QDR while providing policy oversight over ongoing operations. The key challenges I will face during the remainder of my tenure will be to: Ensure that we set the conditions to prevail in the global war on terror; Develop the strategy and organization, secure the necessary authorities, and achieve the interagency integration required to facilitate the effective future global employment of SOF, particularly in countries with which the U.S. is not at war; and ensure that we secure the necessary resources to transform our warfighting capabilities—special operations, strategic, and conventional—in time to minimize future strategic risk to our nation.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: Thank you for the opportunity to share my views with your readers.

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