Here's to a former Green Beret and Quiet Professional. The Pentagon's Secret Warrior leaves the Pentagon as Quietly as he entered. Asked what he is looking forward to, Michael G. Vickers, who retired this week as under secretary of defense for intelligence, answered without hesitation: “Sleeping.”
Having participated in virtually every significant global crisis of the past four decades, either as a supporting player or just as often cast in a starring, if un-credited, role, he has missed a lot of that. “I get kept awake by near-term things and long-term things,” he says.
Most Americans do not even know the job Mr. Vickers is leaving, just days after his 62nd birthday, even though the Pentagon commands the intelligence community’s largest share of the vast federal budget for spying, about $80 billion, and manages the most intelligence employees, about 180,000 people.
For a man who once practiced infiltrating Soviet lines with a backpack-size nuclear weapon, Mr. Vickers has a mellow, professorial demeanor. In addition to Army Special Forces training, he has studied Spanish, Czech and Russian and holds a doctorate in strategy from Johns Hopkins University. (Of his 1,000-page dissertation, he says, “It’s a good doorstop.”) His answers to policy questions are disciplined, cautious and usually organized in two parts, or three, or more.
So ask: What exactly kept you awake? First, as the military would say, are the crocodiles closest to the canoe.
“Our immediate threats are terrorism, particularly from global jihadist groups that want to attack the United States. It is a constant danger,” Mr. Vickers said. “And cyber is now in that category.”
Add the rising Russian challenge to the European order, which Mr. Vickers categorizes as “a fairly near-term problem,” along with “the things that could happen on the Korean Peninsula.”
And the over-the-horizon threats?
“When you step back a bit and look at enduring strategic problems,” he said, “then you look at the Middle East, where you have terrorism and proxy wars and the danger of religious wars and dangers of sectarian conflict.” He warns that religious and sectarian wars tend to be viciously heartfelt, and therefore bloody and protracted.
Attention must be paid to what, he predicts, will be this century’s most dynamic region: “East Asia and the rise of China — how to engage and manage that relationship and that with our allies, and keep the peace in that region.”
Each of those regions poses a difficult challenge for American policy makers, but Mr. Vickers warned of the prospect of more than one exploding simultaneously, with individual risks turning into a cascade of crises from, say, Mali to Pakistan or across East Asia.
“The challenge in the current world is that, for the first time since early in the Cold War, you have more of a risk of crises in multiple regions turning into broader conflict,” he said.
DURING the Cold War, Mr. Vickers was a member of the Green Berets assigned to infiltrate Warsaw Pact borders should World War III break out. His mission: Detonate a portable nuclear bomb to blunt an attack by the overwhelming numbers of Soviet tanks.
He was sent to Central America and the Caribbean during the era of small anticommunist wars, helping to end an airline hijacking and a hostage case involving Honduran government officials. He was also assigned to what a military biography euphemistically calls “contingency operations against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.”
Leaving the Army for the Central Intelligence Agency, he joined the invasion of Grenada. And after the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed in 1983, killing 241 United States servicemen, he was given sensitive counterterrorism work in Lebanon.
As a rising C.I.A. officer, Mr. Vickers was the chief strategist for the largest covert action in American history, smuggling arms and money to Afghan mujahedeen battling Soviet invaders in Afghanistan.
After the collapse of communism in Europe, Mr. Vickers took a break in the policy world, writing white papers on budgets and strategy and how to restructure the military — until he was summoned to the Pentagon not long after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The grim connection was not lost on Mr. Vickers.
Al Qaeda blossomed among those same anti-Soviet “freedom fighters” in the years when Afghanistan, which had received billions of dollars in covert American assistance during the Soviet occupation, was paid scant attention by Washington after Moscow’s army marched home in disgrace.
“We made a mistake at the end of the Cold War by disengaging from that region,” Mr. Vickers said, “and I don’t think we want to do that again.”
FOR the past eight years at the Pentagon, he first managed Special Operations policy and then intelligence programs. He was former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s handpicked liaison to the C.I.A. for the SEAL Team 6 mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Vickers’s efforts contributed to the accelerated expansion of Special Operations forces — doubling personnel numbers, tripling their budget and quadrupling the pace of deployments.
But there is another military truism — if your favorite tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail — and Mr. Vickers is aware of the dangers for the Special Operations forces.
“For all of the capabilities that S.O.F. has as a force-multiplier, as a small-footprint, big-impact force, it is not a panacea for all of your strategic problems,” he said.
Mr. Vickers’s Pentagon tour also witnessed growth in another signature weapon of the post-9/11 period: unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and attack. Early in the counterterrorism wars, the Pentagon could barely keep half a dozen drones airborne at one time; the ceiling now is 65.
“The combination of ‘armed,’ ‘precision,’ ‘reconnaissance’ has been one of the most dramatic innovations,” he said. “It has been a critical operational instrument in the successes we have had against core Al Qaeda, in particular.”
Yet the drone program has come under harsh public scrutiny, especially since President Obama revealed that a January strike by a C.I.A. drone on a Qaeda target in Pakistan killed two Western hostages, one of them an American. Mr. Vickers demurred when asked whether that portion of the lethal drone program now operated covertly by the C.I.A. should fold under the Pentagon.
But he addressed the broader issue of whether the benefits of killing terrorists with remotely piloted, pinpoint strikes by drones outweighs the risks of alienating the public.
“As precise as this instrument is, as important as this instrument is, it is one tool and it is not enough to bring stability to an area,” he said. Landing Hellfire missiles on terrorists does not end terrorism; policy has to address the underlying local grievances that lead to radicalism, he added.
To strategically defeat adversaries, he said, “you have to change the postwar governance to make the victory stick.”
With a résumé that reads like an action-movie character’s biography, Mr. Vickers has been depicted in one film, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and drawn into controversy over another, “Zero Dark Thirty.” He was absolved after a two-year inquiry into whether classified information was leaked to the filmmakers behind “Zero Dark Thirty.” Critics had argued that administration officials hoped the movie could burnish the president’s commander-in-chief credibility.
Near the conclusion of his retirement ceremony on Thursday, Mr. Vickers said he already had a glimpse of his new, quieter life.
He said that when a Pentagon work crew removed a special telephone installed in his home for after-hours secure communications, he found that his cable connection was accidentally cut at the same time — and he had lost all access to the outside world via Internet and TV.