Vickers Stepping Down as Undersecretary for Intelligence
Mike Vickers is a strange Washington creature -- a political appointee not dependent on politics.
Vickers has served in the Defense Department continuously since 2007 -- first as the assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, and now in his current job as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Put another way, Vickers served, without interruption, under two presidents and two different parties.
But today he is stepping down.
Service, Not Politics
The undersecretary was the first assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities. A U.S. Army Special Forces veteran with service in the CIA, Vickers was the only nominee considered for the job. Then-President George W. Bush nominated him, and he took office under then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
In 2009, President-elect Barack Obama asked Gates to remain in office, due to ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States was making progress, and Obama said at the time he did not feel it was smart to change the defense secretary at such a crucial moment.
Gates asked then-Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Jim Clapper, then-Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Vickers to remain in office.
“If a president asks you to stay and a secretary asks you to stay, at least under the ethics I was raised with, you have to,” Vickers said. “Second, there was a lot of work to do. The campaign against al-Qa’ida was really just getting into full gear. There were lots of reasons to stay.”
In 2010, President Obama asked Vickers asked to serve as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, replacing Clapper, who became the director of national intelligence.
A Maturing Role
Vickers believes the role of the undersecretary for intelligence has matured. He’s just the third person to hold the office, which was created under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“In the decade-plus, each of the leaders brought a little different emphasis to the position as conditions have changed and depending on our backgrounds,” he said.
Vickers said the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was a highlight of his Pentagon career, but so were other operations against al-Qa’ida and helping with the surge in Afghanistan.
“My career in DoD has been divided into two parts,” he said. Vickers spent his first decade with DoD as an operator, where he says he learned a tremendous amount about the tactical side of operations. During that time he participated in hostage rescues, and much of what he learned set the stage for his CIA career, he said.
“My last decade as a national security policy maker and intelligence community leader has been marked by a couple of things I am very proud of,” he said. “One is the expansion of special operations capabilities and capacity -- it’s the largest growth of [special operations forces] in history.”
On the intelligence side, he predicts a transformation of U.S. intelligence capabilities over the next decade to deal with the multiple challenges facing America from around the world. This transformation includes “everything from technical intelligence systems to human intelligence aligned to the challenges we face from Russia, cyber, rise of China, states like North Korea, Iran, terrorism and instability in the Middle East,” he said.
Vickers is the first to admit that intelligence analysis cannot be perfect and there have been surprises. “The more complicated the problem, generally, the more the likelihood of surprises,” he said. “Also, if decision-making is concentrated in a very narrow elite, if you miss that [narrow window], then there’s the possibility of surprise.”
Russia is a case in point, he said. The Russians already had 18,000 troops in Crimea and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was surprised when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanokovych was deposed. Putin quickly added some “little green men” -- Russian special operations soldiers who said they were Ukrainians -- surprising the United States and the West.
But then, Vickers said, “the intelligence community quickly adapted to the situation and was able to track things very well since then. [Russian] strategic calculus still has an air of uncertainty to it -- how far they will go and when. But we’ve been able to track the Ukraine crisis very impressively.”
The Arab Spring also held some elements of surprise, he said. No one could foresee the extent of the phenomena, the undersecretary said, or the spread and the trajectory of that instability.
The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from al-Qaida in Iraq and their rapid advance through Iraq were also surprises, Vickers said.
“They had been degraded about 90 percent through the Iraq war, and remnants fled to Syria and were enabled by the Syrian conflict,” he said. “Their ability to re-infiltrate and take large areas of territory in Western and Northern Iraq and how fast they did it was a surprise as well, partially because of the alienation of the Sunni community made that possible.”
New Challenges in a New World
Global communications have made the intelligence business both tougher and easier, the undersecretary said. How information moves, the sheer volume of it and the technologies used have changed dramatically, he said, noting “Change is a constant. We try to keep ahead, and sometimes we are well ahead of the curve. In other cases, you have to adapt to surprises.”
One personal surprise from his tenure were charges that he leaked classified information about the bin Laden raid to Hollywood scriptwriters. A number of investigations found that Vickers participated in a routine meeting with producers and it was done with full knowledge of DoD officials. Reviews of the meetings found that Vickers conducted himself appropriately and professionally, and made no disclosures. “Any reporting otherwise is completely erroneous and irresponsible,” a spokeswoman for DoD said.
Upon retiring, Vickers said he will take some time to rest before starting a new chapter in his life.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)