“Irregular Warfare & Intelligence” - with IWC Director Dennis Walters
Erin Dietrick: Welcome to "SpyCast" -- the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm Erin Dietrick, and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator, coming up next on "SpyCast."
Dr. Dennis Walters: I don't need that kind of money. I don't need that. You know, it's very cheap to work in the realm of ideas, and that's my corner of the realm, is ideas. So that's what I'm bringing to this, you know, it's just we're going to let that industrial complex keep churning out the planes and the tanks and all of that because it's important, and it makes the people that like it happy. So we'll let them keep doing that. But while they're doing that, we're also going to work this little insurgency on the other side to convince people that there's other ways to deal with these irregular problems globally.
Erin Dietrick: Dennis Walters enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1983 and was selected as one of the original members of a reactivated ranger battalion. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division and the First Armored Division before being commissioned into the Army Intelligence Corps. He went on to pass the special forces qualification course and speaks fluent Russian. In 2009, he retired from the Army and began building a global network of irregular warfare professionals for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, work he continues to this day as the Acting Director of the recently set up Irregular Warfare Center. In this episode, Andrew and Dennis discuss if regular warfare is, well, regular, what is irregular warfare? What role does intelligence play in its execution? What role does it play in keeping the country safe? How do intelligence and special operations blend together? And how does Dennis' experience feed into his role? If you enjoy this show, please tell your friends and loved ones and consider leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: Can you just tell us a little bit more about the Irregular Warfare Center.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Absolutely, Andrew. Thank you for inviting me first. This was quite an opportunity for to us come out and, you know, introduce ourselves and sort of tell the world about what we do and what we're going to do and what the center is. And it's interesting that, when, you know, almost every time I start to speak about the center, everyone assumes that we're new. And in some respects we are actually new. But in other respects we've been doing this for over a decade. And so that's where I kind of like to start, is sort of on the foundation of the underpinning of the center itself and where we came from. Because I think that's important to understand the roots of why the IW Center is where it is right now. And throughout our conversation today, I'm going to use the words "IWC," and I'm going to omit the word "warfare." Because that's a little bit off putting to many of the people that are interested in what we're doing. So for the IW Center, we've been doing, I've been doing irregular education, irregular warfare-type education for over 10 years now within the Department of Defense. And I manage the only Title 10, which is Department of Defense authority that deals with irregular warfare for our international partners and allies, and it's been quite successful. And I'll give you a little bit of history of that so that we have some context for the discussion as we go through this afternoon. Right around 2003, inside the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, there were some very forward-thinking people that realized the United States and our allies and partners needed to create a counter-narrative to, at the time, Al Qaeda. So they had that idea in their mind. And to do that they decided to use education as the vehicle to develop that global network. And they knew that the Department of State had a very successful program called the International Military Education and Training or IMET for short, and it had been very successful over the years all over the world in providing education to our partners and allies. So the folks inside the Assistant Secretary of Special Operations decided to ask Congress for a little bit of money and an authority to try an idea. And that idea being to use education as the vehicle to build this counter-narrative to Al Qaeda. So that's where it started. And we started very small, and we started building out, doing education programs around the world.
Andrew Hammond: Sorry, just to briefly interrupt. This is --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: -- education of foreign military officers?
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yes. And I'm glad you asked that question. Military officers was one aspect of it. One of the things that we differed from and the authority allowed us to touch anybody inside a government that dealt with security. And this was a little bit of a departure from the normal training and education that the Department of Defense did in the past with partners and allies, is it was focused specifically on uniformed people. So now we were able now reach out across the uniform aisle and reach the civilians that work in the ministries of interior and around the world. Because in a lot of cases those are the people that dealt directly with terrorism and the problems that underlie that. So we got the authority there to do the education piece. And then we also got the authority and the ability now to continue following those individuals throughout their career. And this is where I just want to take a very brief and give you an example of what I'm talking about. A long time ago there was a soldier in a country, and I'm going to omit the names of the countries, that was working with one of our special forces teams for the United States. And our special forces team from the U.S. identified a couple of those individuals as being possibly up-and-coming individuals within their nation's military. So when the U.S. team came back, they mentioned that in their after-action reviews, that these folks were potentially valuable to their country and then as partners to the United States. So what we did at that point is we started to follow those individuals. And not follow them in the way that you would think, you know, spying on them, but just staying in touch with them and offering them opportunities as they progressed through the ranks. So initially these host-nation folks were at the ranks of captains and lieutenants and sergeants. And we offered them the opportunity later to come back to the United States to go to some of our regional center programs as they progressed through the ranks. And we would -- this individual actually went on to get a Master's degree at the naval postgraduate school. And now that individual is actually the minister of defense his country. So you can see where there is going, that we've been able to, all those years, it started from one special forces team's engagement in that partner nation, following that individual through their entire career up until the point where they're actually very influential in their government. So now we've built an incredible relationship with that person. And now that person, and this is a real example, has come back into the United States and specifically requested assistance to do things in strategic competition on the ground in his country using U.S. assets. That is irregular approaches to problem solving.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Dr. Dennis Walters: So all of that is the precursor to the center. So we'll fast forward now to about three years ago. And the Center of Armed Services Committee came to us, me, inside the Security Cooperation Agency and said, you've been very successful in doing IW education internationally, we need to do something in the United States. What is it that you need to be able to do that you can't do right now? So we spent about a year working with the Senate developing what they call technical assistance in the legislative language. So what we ended up with, and it's a little bit of a boring sausage making contest here with developing legislation, but we got a very smartly defined National Defense Authorization Act that just came out a few months ago that authorized the establishment of the Irregular Warfare Center. And that authority now has been expand beyond our ability to just educate international partners and allies. It's given us the authority now to work across the aisles in the U.S. inner-agency and with our partners and allies as well, and then on the civil society inside the United States. And that's a pretty novel departure now. So I have now the authority to work directly with educational institutions in the United States as well as abroad to define and build out the ability to educate and train in this idea of IW. So I'm sure that probably gave you some other questions to follow up with.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, quite a few questions actually. The first thought that I had was, that was very successful talent spotting, wasn't it, picking out a future minister of defense. So I hope that person got a promotion out of this.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Well, interestingly, that -- the person that was the U.S. special forces officer at the time is now fairly well high placed in our own government. So it's worked well now that they've been able to maintain those contacts. And really that's sort of the nexus of, you know, and I'm sure we'll get into the mission of the IW Center, but one of those things that we're looking at providing the ability for us to do with our partners and allies is to really build that network of relationships. And the way I like to describe it is that we are providing a way to globally crowd source solutions to irregular problems. And that's something that really has not been codified, in my mind, from our side ever. So it's a fairly novel departure for us. So there was a whole host of educational things that could be taught under the auspices of IW. And to put it in a frame that I think would be easily understood is a Master's degree education. So I would provide ask do provide educational funding for our partners and allies to come to the United States to get a degree, a Master's degree at one of our institutions. These are primarily, right now, military institutions. But they would leave with a degree in national strategy, public policy, those types of things.
Andrew Hammond: What kind of institutions are we talking about? Like West Point? Annapolis?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So right now the -- and this is, again, this is one of the things that we just received in our authority is ability to partner with civilian schools. So we're still working out how we do that and, you know, what we do with the civilian institutions. But primarily right now it is military institutions, such as just across the road here, the National Defense University. We have a great relationship with them. I provide an opportunity for 40 international folks to come to there and to get a degree every year from the National Defense University. And I have a similar program out on the West Coast at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Andrew Hammond: So in some ways it's almost strategic education.
Dr. Dennis Walters: That's a great way to put it. It is absolutely strategic education. And a little bit down from that is, you know, a relationship that I've established with the Defense Department Regional Centers. And I don't know, your listeners may not be familiar with them, but they maybe familiar with the Joint Special Operations University. I know my colleague Ike Wilson was here recently, and I listened to his podcast. So we have a great relationship with JSOU, and they provide opportunities that I take advantage of because they have a very great capability in the special operations world to train a very specific aspect of this strategic education. So I have relationships with all those as well.
Andrew Hammond: And just looking at some of the material that I could find online in preparation for this interview, maybe I got the wrong end of the stick, so to speak. But I got the impression that IW and the IW Center was more about the world in which we're in just now, which is strategic competition with China and Russia. But it seems to be that some of the roots also go back to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terror. So I'm just wondering, is that fair to say that it's got the genesis of the IW centers in both of those arenas? Or is it really in the war on terror?
Dr. Dennis Walters: I think you have to take both of those sides. And that's one of the things that, you know, there's no shortage of opinion on why we didn't do so well in Afghanistan. And you could even say that Iraq was a problem too, the way that some of that was handled. So all of that is, I think, was the driving forces in creating of the IW Center. And, you know, the war on terror, again, it's an aspect of irregular problem sets. And I think that's been what's missing in our whole of government approaches to dealing with things. And that's one of the things that, in working with the Congress on designing this legislation, was the part that they stressed to me. That, you know, we need to be able to innovate. We need to be able to approach things differently. And interestingly, and you mentioned Afghanistan, and I'm a special operator; right? That's my roots. And a lot of the people in my community that are well respected, you know, they have said many times that we do not and we're not well suited to deal with problems that are population centric. And they're absolutely right, you know. And that's the piece that I don't think we do well. And there's a number of reasons in that. But it's that understanding and the overlay of culture and conflict that the United States has a hard time with. And that's one of things that, you know, as we get more into what, you know, the center's mission is on the U.S. side, that's one of the pieces that I'm tackling. And I was just at the State Department meeting with a lot of the people there, discussing ways that the Defense Department can work more closely with the State Department, because they really at the edge of that intersection of culture and social systems. And that's the part that we need to understand better if we're going to really be more successful in our relationships abroad.
Andrew Hammond: Just before I forget, was there a set curriculum for educating the overseas civilians and non-civilians? Is there somewhere that are listeners can find it? Or did it vary or?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So I guess it's a fairly broad question that you're asking. And there's a number of different ways that we educate. And some of the things that we do you would not immediately look at and go, oh, that's an irregular warfare-type task. So I do have, and our website is a great place to start, and we also have all the other social media platforms that are there as well. So that is a good place to begin the search if you're looking for education pieces. But I think it's important to highlight that it's very -- we have the ability and, you know, I'll say the flexibility to design things that meet needs. This is a novel departure now, because we're not tied to a specific thing. So while there's a lot of people doing what's called IW education across the world, including some very notable people that we've already mentioned, like JSOU, ND, and NPS. The IW Center now has the ability to design specific things to address specific needs. And this is the piece, I think, is important to understand. Just this morning we were on the phone with folks from Eastern Europe, from a country in Eastern Europe. Again, I'll omit the names. But there is a definite need there for education and some training that doesn't exist right now, and it has to be culturally tailored. Because if it's not, we miss the mark. We can't take a Western way of doing things all the time or a U.S. way of doing it and teach that to a partner nation and expect it to resonate and actually be effective.
Andrew Hammond: So the education for specific problems and strategic partners and so forth, but what's the end outcome of this? Is it basically an extremely large networking enterprise? I know that that's part of it. Or is it -- what kind of education? You know, why are they lacking the education? Or why do they -- what as --
[ Multiple Speakers ]
-- educating them? How does that tie into like American grand strategy of educating --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Why is it important.
Andrew Hammond: -- people in x country?
Dr. Dennis Walters: The idea mere is the end state that we're after is empowerment and the ability to create resilience and capability within a country. And that would require, it does require education at different levels. So while some of it might be just education on how you run a police force or education on how you communicate and how you write effectively, that's one piece of it. But at the broader scale, the education is how you, Andrew, would run a country. So how could you take your defense department and establish it and structure it the way that would be necessary to make your population resilient? And if we use the -- you know, what's happening now in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe as an example, a lot of our allies in Eastern Europe are very concerned about things that might happen and sort of that domino effect if the Russians are successful in the Ukraine. So I think this is a good example of education. So you have to think a little differently in the terms of what we're educating. So we're going to educate Eastern Europe on how to be resilient and to resist influence. So that's education in a broader context. So while pieces of that might be what you would think of as traditional in-school education with a blackboard and a pencil and a computer, it's really more about educating in how you conduct and run a country on that scale.
Andrew Hammond: So the aim is to make a country stronger and more resilient and able to fend for itself. And then, if it can't fend for itself any longer, to make another country that is interfering or invading it, is to make their life as difficult as possible; is that correct? So it's like --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Well.
Andrew Hammond: -- countering information at one site --
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Dr. Dennis Walters: Countering it, yes.
Andrew Hammond: -- but then also, if they -- if you're invaded like training stay-behinds to, you know, conduct sabotage and these types of things? Or, yeah, sorry if I'm not getting it.
Dr. Dennis Walters: No, I think you are getting it. I mean, all the things you're saying are definitely in that arena of what we're doing. And the resistance to invasion and the resistance to occupation is exactly that. It's we're creating the resilience among the population. And in order to do that, if you're a leader of a country or you're a person in the government of that country, you have to understand how you do that for your citizens. So, again, that's just, that's one piece of it. And in the part you mentioned is, if you're not successful and your country is, you know, falls victim to invasion, you need those allies, that network that you mentioned and that we've been talking about. So that's a part of it as well. And, again, I think, you know, you're getting a little bit down into the tactical piece of it because, you know, that's an aspect of it. So I'm more focused on the governmental side of how we build resilient structures within the system. And in order to do that, you have to have an educated group of people. And, again, I don't want -- I'm not -- I hope I'm not communicating that our allies are not educated by any means. It's just an opportunity for them to take lessons learned and share them in the network as they're getting educated in a specific set.
Andrew Hammond: So the education is the demand-driven or supply-driven? Are these countries coming to the United States, saying we could use some help and support here? Some countries will ask for it more than others? Or is it, you know, this is what we need to do to keep America [inaudible]? I mean, I know it's neither of those, but, yeah, just help me understand that.
[ Multiple Speakers ]
Dr. Dennis Walters: Push pull, I guess, is -- yeah, it's both. And, initially, in some cases -- and, again, it's a global; right? So I -- on an annual basis, it's about 120 countries that I work with, you know --
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Dr. Dennis Walters: -- and so it's a substantial number. And it varies between country as to how involved they are. And, again, I work through the global combat and commands, you know, so we have, you know, great structures there. But for what we're talking about here is it varies based on region, based on country, based on culture. And that's the part that we have not done well in the U.S. side is really factoring in all of those social implications of how you structure programs to make a country more stable, more resilient, you know, more leaning towards the ideals that support a global community. That's the part that I think that, you know, we were missing in some cases. But to get to your question, each country is different. So the example I started our discussion with, with that young captain working with our special forces, that was an initial push. You know, we said, we would really like to come and do some tactical training with your soldiers. But it ended up being a pull once that individual had matriculated up into leadership positions within his country where he's reaching back to the United States, asking for specific things.
Andrew Hammond: So the push and pull can evolve over time?
Dr. Dennis Walters: And it does it.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Dr. Dennis Walters: And it does. And it's very relationship driven. And that's the part that, you know, we need to do better at. And I think we are doing better at it, is building those relationships at the mid and senior level so that, when something happens in a particular region or a country and they need something or they would like to collaborate, we've got the mechanisms in place. So not only can they reach out to us in the United States, but now they've reached -- they can reach out to other countries that they've met through this same network. And that's one of the things I wanted to bring up is that it's not just the United States. While we provide the venue, there'll be -- and that individual I mentioned was in class with, you know, five or six other nations, including the United States. And they're all part of the network. And we provide ways for them to stay engaged and to stay in touch and to stay discussing these contemporary issues so that, you know, they can do things ahead of time before it gets to the point of conflict. So we're trying to address things pre-conflict.
Andrew Hammond: I think I'm really beginning to understand what you're doing now. I think it's really incredible, because it's basically, you know, rather than -- being slightly playful here. But rather than just retreating behind 2,000 miles of ocean and saying, well, if something crops up, then we've got a bunch of big hammers, and we can try to deal with it. But if you're engaged and you have partners all around the globe and they know how to take care of themselves and they know how to ask for help when they need it and so forth, then there's a real strong social system that's built up. So 120 countries, I think that's just over 2/3 of the country's in the world or just under. So we're talking about something that's like very different from what's traditionally been the case. So one of the things about democracies is that you go from the -- you just deal with the crocodile nearest the boat.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Right.
Andrew Hammond: And then you wait for the next crocodile to come. But you're saying, if we can stem the flow of crocodiles, then that's actually going to be better than just whacking everyone that comes up to the boat.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Exactly. And I made a couple of notes here as we're talking, some example that's are not really traditionally thought of as being in the realm of defense department. And that's pandemic. Human trafficking. And climate change. And these are three areas that we're actually working at from the IW side and bolstering the ability of nations to deal with those types of things, because they all affect security in some realm or another. So we've created ways, and we have systems, you know. So if you, you know, come through our programs and you stay engaged with us, we have the ability to provide what we call global strategic tabletop exercises in things like pandemic control. There's a lot of ideas out there that exist, not necessarily just inside the United States, but inside our partners and allies that we can create the networks for that cross-pollination of information to share. And I think we're all a little bit better for that.
Andrew Hammond: Conventional warfare is easy to get your head around. It's the Greeks versus the Persians. The allies versus the axis powers. And Ukraine versus Russia. It involves weapons and violence and armies and navies. One side usually wins. Then there's a period of peace before the next war. But what are unconventional and irregular warfare? Unconventional warfare is taken to be a spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, predominantly using local surrogates who are supported by an external power. The focus is on indigenous resistance elements. Imagine Russia defeats Ukraine's conventional army. Unconventional war would be, if the West trains, equips, and supports Ukrainians, continue to resist the invasion through guerilla campaigns, sabotage, subversion and things of this nature.
Unconventional war is often seen as a subset of irregular war, as our counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and foreign internal defense. In my view, the version Dennis articulates in this episode would broaden the concept to include things like information operations, cyber war, and other nonmilitary levers, such as diplomacy and economics. A definition of irregular war often used in discussions on the issue is a struggle amongst state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population. The focus here, then, is on the population, on gaining its support or defeating its [inaudible]. There's a definite lack of precision for sure, and I think a spectrum of levels of war rather than a black and white dichotomy is the way to go. But hopefully the "SpyCast" population will support my irregular definition of irregular war.
Okay, and can you just repeat the crowd sourcing that you mentioned earlier, because I'm thinking about that now when you just described --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: -- that.
Dr. Dennis Walters: So, again, this is my, you know, my way of putting is we're developing a way to globally crowd source solutions to irregular problems. And one of the things that we're doing is we're mapping the global network of IW aspects. And I don't, you know, I try not to use the "warfare" word here, but everyone that does things that could be considered some irregular something, we're mapping that so that we will have the ability now to search that global network, to define, you know, who's dealing with pandemics? Who's dealing with climate change issues in, you know, Northern Africa? How's doing that? Who's got any sort of expertise, both on the U.S. side and on the international side? So what we would end up with is we could pull together a very quick ad hoc network around a particular problem set and then source that and build out solutions. So let's just say North Africa's facing climate change and drought. We would be able to put experts from across the world together to come up with recommended solutions and then put that into the field and test it. So that's kind of the idea behind this global crowd source. And we're not there yet with the network piece. We're building it out, but that's one of the things that we're going to be resourced to do.
Andrew Hammond: I guess some people would think, well, is this not something that the United Nations should do? And is this creating a network that is working against the United Nations? Or I feel like I know partly the answer, because of the makeup of the security council and so forth. You know, that wouldn't work in the way that you're envisioning it. So is this really a way to try to marshall forces in the world that are going to help propagate you future of liberal democracies or --
Dr. Dennis Walters: I think that's a great way to put it. Can I quote that?
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, of course you can, yeah. Are you recruiting?
Dr. Dennis Walters: I'm going to write that down. Yeah, that's great. So, yeah, I mean, I don't think we would never be viewed as working in opposition to the UN. I mean, we're, you know, from the U.S. perspective, yes, that would -- if the UN could do that, I think they would have, you know. And, again, this is one of the things that, you know, the beauty of our authority now and our ability to work across the U.S. government and to bring in civil society, you know, this hasn't been done before. And this is the innovative part that, you know, that our congress has said, you know, historically the Defense Department doesn't innovate very well, you know. But now we may be able to, because we have the mechanisms in place to do that, to reach across different agencies, different departments and to pull the experts together and to provide that [inaudible]. And really it's resources; right? Everything works around resources. In this case resources is money. And we have the ability now to use that money to bring those experts together to deal with common global problems. And if you think about it from sort of a holistic perspective, if you and I -- we may be a different color. We may be a different ethnic group. We may be a different religion, but we drink out of the same river. So if we can agree on the fact that that river needs to be clean, while we're working through how to clean that river, we might work through the problems of our ethnic problem, you know, with the whole religion and differences. We can solve a lot of problems based around that common need to have clean drinking water. So that's kind of the idea of working through a small problem to solve the bigger problem of sort of an international cooperation.
Andrew Hammond: One thing that I was going to ask was, just before we move on, the human terrain systems and Afghanistan, for example. So the anthropologists that were put in the field to try to understand the cultures, is this in any way connected to that? Or can be it connected or?
Dr. Dennis Walters: It's not connected yet, but we have anthropologists that work with us now. And I am a firm believer that that's one of the things that we need to focus on. They were successful at the tactical level in the human terrain teams, but I think after, you know, once you got above that, it kind of got lost.
Andrew Hammond: Okay.
Dr. Dennis Walters: And that's one of the things now that we've elevated this to a department level, where we're looking at a holistic idea of using this whole human terrain anthropological views. Because, when I first started this, you know, 15 years ago when I was still in uniform, you know, anthropology and bringing cultural anthropologists in was new. And no one had ever thought of that. But I've seen that over the years and how very successful it can be. And this kind of gets back to one of the things that, you know, we talked about early on is how -- you have to shape your education programs around the culture you're talking to. And that's one of the things that we don't always do. And we're in the process now of translating one of our IW thought courses into languages that would -- we can export them in other languages to other countries without teaching them in English. So I think that's an important piece to. And we already have some of that where some of our regional centers teach in target languages. But we're going to take this out in specific languages of our adversary. And I think that's one of the things that will be very novel because now you don't need to learn English, you know. And, again, that's been very successful. I think one of the regional centers here in DC, the Perry Center, that focuses on South America, teaches many of its courses in Spanish. That's a fantastic idea, and that's what we need to do more of. It's just hard because, you know, Americans don't speak more than one language, and that's unfortunate.
Andrew Hammond: Except you, you speak fluent Russian; right?
Dr. Dennis Walters: I do, yeah. Yeah, I do.
Andrew Hammond: Well, we can come on to that. I feel like I'm beginning to understand is it now. I think partly it's because, when you say Department of Defense and irregular war, there's a whole lot of baggage that comes with that; right? And part of what we're doing today is dispensing some of that baggage. So one of the things that I was going to ask was, is there some kind of -- because of the levels that you're talking about, we're talking about grand strategy and strategy, and we're talking about the power of narratives and, you know, language to shape the world around us. Is there some kind of national security strategy-type document that listeners can go to to see the plan behind all of this laid out somewhere?
Dr. Dennis Walters: Not yet.
Andrew Hammond: Not yet.
Dr. Dennis Walters: There's not.
Andrew Hammond: Okay.
Dr. Dennis Walters: And that's one of the things, you know, if we back up to why I'm here, why I'm running this and why the IW Center is located inside the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. And I think we're here inside the Security Cooperation Agency because of where the program began. And that's, you know, we've been very successful over the years doing that. But to answer your question, I think eventually -- and this is something I've talked to the leadership at the Security Cooperation Agency about, is that we will eventually need to move out of that agency and become a different part of the Defense Department and even have linkages, hopefully, at the national command level, you know, the NSC, National Security Council level. We don't have that yet. So that's something that I think will have to come, but I think this will put -- most of your listeners will know that you can't get there unless you've proven success first. So we have to prove that these ideas work and go back to Congress and say, hey, we took your authority seriously. We executed these programs these ways in these countries and here's the results. I think we need to take it up a notch now and get more authority to do this at a bigger level. So we're not there yet.
Andrew Hammond: Okay. And just like in a couple of sentences, you know, one of the things that I love about our podcast is that it's a combination of people that are practitioners, that are out in the agencies doing the work and informers. But there's also just the average person on the street that loves a good spy story.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Right.
Andrew Hammond: So just for them, just a couple of sentences, what's the Defense Security Cooperation Agency?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So that if -- and, again, that's -- it's a big agency. And the Defense Security Cooperation Agency is charged with leading the security cooperation globally for the United States. And you can think of it in terms of foreign military sales, selling equipment, and also doing education programs, which is what I do, for the world. You know, so any time there's a sale of military hardware, the Security Cooperation Agency is the one that is doing that activity. So any time government hardware moves across, you know, that's the Security Cooperation Agency is the lead for that.
Andrew Hammond: Just before we move on, like help me understand the intentionality behind this. Like what the drivers are. So I know that you have been doing this, and you've been pushing it, and you're leading, you know, the intellectual charge. I know that the current secretary of defense signed off on it. I know that Congress is involved. But help us understand the intentionality behind all of this and the direction it's going in. Who's steering the ship? Who's throwing the coal in the fire? Who's providing the supplies? Help us understand where the ship is sailing and how it's getting there.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Well, I think the driving force, I mean, I'll say one word, Afghanistan. I mean, that was, you know, the fact that we didn't do well and that we didn't quite understand what we were trying to achieve there. And we were trying to make certain things happen that, you know, were not -- they weren't ready for. So I think there was a lot of things that Congress was looking at and that we needed to be able to do better. So that's the driving force. And, again, we have to prove success. So right now the onus, I guess, the driving force for this would be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. So that's who I work for. That's, you know, who ultimately decides the direction of which way we're going. And it is, you know, the ASD SOLIC, special operations low-intensity conflict, has the mission of IW for the Department of Defense. So they, that office, that individual, Secretary Maier is the driving force behind what we're doing. So hopefully that gives you a little bit of an idea.
Andrew Hammond: We've maybe touched on this or spoke around about it, but give us a crystallization of the mission of the center.
Dr. Dennis Walters: So it's broad, but -- and I'll put it in the my terms. It's to change the way the United States thinks, the United States government thinks and how we approach conflict and competition. So that's really -- and a very simplistic way to look at it is what our mission is, is to change the way we do that. So, more broadly, we have to look at, you know, how we interact with our allies and partners and how we bring whole of government solutions to the things that we're dealing with overseas. And that's the interagency piece that, you know, we now have the authority to do.
Andrew Hammond: Let's stay on the [inaudible] just now, how much staff, how big is the center?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So now the simple questions.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. What's that?
Dr. Dennis Walters: I said now the simple questions.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, yeah. Yeah. How big is the center? Where are you located? If someone out there thinks that that is exactly what I want to do, how could they become part of your team? Just answer those kinds of questions, if you don't mind.
Dr. Dennis Walters: So we have about 15 people, full-time staff right now. And the idea is that we would, you know, have somewhere between 20 and 30 full-time employees once we're completely ready to go. We don't have a physical location yet. The basing process to find a location is rather lengthy for the U.S. government, so that's an ongoing process. Quite frankly, I would prefer not to have a physical location because that gives me a lot of flexibility. And I mentioned the network piece earlier and the relationships I've built with the DoD, the defense department regional centers with the joint special operations university and with a lot of our allies and partners overseas. So I have the ability to flex very quickly, to stand up a node in just about any place in the world almost within a few days, and just stand up around a problem set. So I don't have a physical location yet, but we will eventually have some place once that process is worked.
Andrew Hammond: It almost sounds in a way, and I know this, it's got congressional approval and approval from people at the very top level. But just as an institution or as a military ecosystem, it's almost like you're waging an intellectual insurgency or intellectual irregular warfare on the prevailing paradigm.
Dr. Dennis Walters: You are absolutely correct. That is exactly what I'm doing. And, again, my roots are Army Special Forces. And that's, you know, what we do and what I was trained in, is, you know, that insurgent mindset of changing thinking from the inside out. So it's going to be a slow go. And it certainly won't happen in my tenure as the acting director or as the full-time director. It's going to take a generation to bring about this change. But that's exactly what we're trying to do is foster that level of change. And to get at that, one of the things now that we're able to do is, you know, the education piece, and this is why it's so pivotal, is to change the way people think. And there's people in our government, in our defense department that will never change the way they think. But there are the ones that are coming up behind them that we can influence. So we're already looking at starting educational programs on this way of thinking inside the Army ROTC programs. Not there yet, we've just started the initial discussion. So at the undergraduate level inside the United States, we start providing the education for that type of thinking. So instead of having that transactional approach to things, it's more of a transformational way of thinking. And I know these are a lot of buzzwords, but there's actual science behind, if you can teach people early on how to approach things and break down those cultural barriers, by the time they're our age, it will be just the normal way of doing business.
Andrew Hammond: If you're a little confused by the U.S. Special Forces and how the Navy Seals, Delta Force and the Night Stalkers fit into all of this, here's a quick explainer. Firstly, we started off with a red herring. They aren't actually called U.S. Special Forces. While other countries refer to all of these types of units as "special forces," in the United States only the Green Berets, the U.S. Army Special Forces can correctly be defined by this term. As it happens, the Green Beret's primary specialism is unconventional warfare. At the macro level, U.S. special forces operations command counts over 70,000 personnel. As a point of reference. The size of the entire British army is roughly similar. These can be broken down by service -- Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines -- or by Tier 1, 2, and 3. Tier 1 includes what are called special mission units, who are commanded by special operations command in Tampa, Florida. These missions are usually classified and approved at the highest level. For example, the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, by the Navy Seal Team Six, which was signed off by President Obama or the operation to rescue American hostages from Iran by the Army's Delta Force, which was signed off on by President Carter. Tier 2 and 3 are normally assigned to service- or region-specific commands. For example, first special forces group, remember they're the Green Berets, have a geographic focus on the Pacific. While the fifth special forces group is focused towards the broader Middle East. The units in Tier 2 include the Green Berets, the Navy Seals, 75th Ranger Regiment, and 160th SOAR or the Night Stalkers. Tier 3 units are usually larger and broader and include the 82nd Airborne, Marine Corps Recon Battalions, and the 10th Mountain Division. PS, the tiers were set up to categorize the levels of funding assigned to each unit and relative terms -- Tier 1, getting the most and Tier 3 the least -- not skill or prestige.
And what are the assets that you have in doing this? Is it your staff at the center who are helping you collectively try to persuade people through speaking to people? Through writing documents or articles or reports? Or is it the 20,000 people that you know oversea who are part of this network that you have been speaking about? Or, you know, I'm sure it's probably a little bit of both, but --
Dr. Dennis Walters: It is.
Andrew Hammond: -- help us understand the assets that you bring to bear on this.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Okay, so it let me -- and, again, there's no hardware; right? I don't have boats. I don't have ships. I don't have guns.
Andrew Hammond: No quartermaster.
Dr. Dennis Walters: There's no quartermaster. I have ideas. And I -- and, again, you know, I'm an old-school guy, thinking about how you approach things from a concept of changing the hearts and minds. That was the moniker when I went through special forces. We have to change the hearts and minds. So that's what I bring. That's the tool set I have.
Andrew Hammond: One of the things that I was wondering was, who wages these special operators, intelligence operatives, hackers, private military forces, some combination thereof, depending on the country, I guess? At the biggest level, it could be the Department of Agriculture. It could be the Defense Department. It could be a whole variety of different actors that could be waging this. So I just want to -- yeah, what your thoughts were on that?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So I think that there's two sides to this; right? And you say "waging," there's sort of the counter IW piece, and then there's, you know, conducting IW piece. And there's no set people that do IW, but there's definitely -- it's this mindset that it's a special operation skill set, and that's not true. This is really -- and it's one of the things that I've been challenged to do is to break down that perception that this is SOCOM, you know, this is a special operations niche. It's not. You know, it really has to be broad. And you mentioned Department of Agriculture, that's -- you're spot on. That's the level that we need to get to as we develop ways to -- and, again, strategic competition is a big piece of this, is how do we address strategic competition using irregular ways to solve those problems? And some of it might involve Department of Agriculture. Some of it might involve the Department of Commerce, probably actually does. Department of Treasury. All these departments have, you know, pieces of how we do that. But there is no overarching IW plan yet. And that's what we're trying to get to, I think, with the government. So that's a great question and one that hasn't been solved yet. On the counter side, you know, there's -- now that definitely, I think, at least right now in some respects, falls in DoD. You know, we develop ways to counter other people's use of irregular things like the Wagner Group. I mean, that's a classic one. You know, that's a problem set that the Department of Defense is addressing. But it also has aspects of other parts of the U.S. government, because you've got sanctions that play a big piece of that. So that's the part that we have to get at is, you know, a holistic, whole of government response to all of these problems that feed into each other.
Andrew Hammond: So on the podcast last year, we had someone that was on the Denial and Deception Committee, a committee set up for the purposes of strategic deception, educating people about, talking about, keeping it foremost in people's minds. And that waxed and waned depending on who was the Director of National Intelligence or the DCI, the Director of Central Intelligence at the time. And then eventually the shop closed up. So I'm just wondering, the IWC, as a recent creation, is there a danger that some new administration comes in or some new defense secretary comes in and it falls by the way side? Or does the congressional approval seat mean that you, you know, there has to be funds and this has to keep going until Congress says otherwise?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So that's a good question. And the law is that's the saving grace for this. And, you know, as we -- when we first started talking today, I mentioned that I've been doing this for a decade; right? And the authority to do that is -- and the reason it's still there is because we've managed -- and, again, it's part of understanding your operational environment, is that you stay contemporary. You stay with the resident message. So we're calling it IW now, but before we called it terrorism, before we called it hybrid warfare, before we called it gray zone, all of these things are the same thing, but the authority is still there. Again, the Congress is key in all of this, because you have to stay engaged with them. And you have to explain things in ways that they understand because they're the ones that write the laws and that's what underpins our ability to do things for the United States. That law exists, and it's going to stay there. And changing that's no easy act; right? Act of Congress to change the law. So, you know, as long as we stay engaged with the Congress and we keep them informed of what we're doing and we're aware of the changing operational environment and the need to keep the law contemporary, I think we'll be here. Because this program's been here for over a decade. And it's been successful because we've been able to adapt to changing environments.
Andrew Hammond: So even if some new administration came in of whatever political stripe and there was a political appointee, the Secretary of Defense and the Undersecretary for Special Operations, even if the President, the Secretary and the Undersecretary were all against it you --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Stacking some odds here.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You could -- basically they couldn't shut it down because Congress has said that it has to keep going?
Dr. Dennis Walters: Well, it could always, you know, be marginalized, you know. And that's the thing. There's --
Andrew Hammond: Sometimes that's worse.
Dr. Dennis Walters: That's -- exactly.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Dr. Dennis Walters: And, again, I was taught early on, and we haven't talked much about, you know, my educational background. But, you know, I was educated in the Public Policy Institute in Georgetown as an Army officer, which I thought, why in the world are you sending an Army Special Forces Officer to learn about public policy? This makes no sense. You know, I would much rather be in a strategic Master's program, looking at national security. Now I completely understand. Because I understand how these authorities work and how policy is shaped, you know. And the whole name of the game is, you can be cut, you can be reduced, just don't get zeroed out. And that's the way that we play the long game here. And it's not -- maybe I'm painting much to rosy of picture, it's been a bumpy ride over the decade; right? And we've gone, depending on the administration, as to how much influence they wanted to put on this. And, quite frankly, educating people isn't really that resonant with politicians because it takes time, and you're talking about generational change. So for me to point to success and that example I used when we first started talking about that young officer, that took 15 years. So that's not something people really want to talk about on the political level, because nobody's got that attention span. So, yeah, we could definitely be influenced by an administration that, you know, doesn't see the importance in this. But my goal is to make this important, to make this resonate across political parties so that there's not one political party that can say, well, that doesn't -- that's not in line what we want to do. You know, that's my goal, is to make this visible across the aisle so everybody can go, this works. You know, this is giving the United States and our partners and allies a unique capability that we didn't have before. And so then it would make it more difficult for them to cut.
Andrew Hammond: I just had the thought there and play along with me.
Dr. Dennis Walters: All right.
Andrew Hammond: It seems like you're in some ways, and I mean this in the best possible way, you're like a Green Beret with a Ph.D., who's -- and the Department of Defense --
Dr. Dennis Walters: That's exactly what I am, Andrew.
Andrew Hammond: -- basically being a Green Beret, but using your Ph.D. to try to do what you're trained to do when you were a Green Beret; is that correct?
Dr. Dennis Walters: You hit it. That is exactly what it is. And that is -- in fact, I had the opportunity to talk to some of my -- the young Green Berets that are, you know, just coming into the force, you know, the captains and the majors. And it's like, you know, this is what you do when you hang up the uniform, because the fight -- and, again, I use that term pejoratively -- the fight continues. Now my job is to set the conditions for future success for you, and then you'll take over that role from me once I finally walk away from it. This is exactly what I'm doing. And, you know, back to my discussion with the State Department yesterday, and that they said that, you know, the Green Berets have gotten away from their core mission, which is teaching. I'm a teacher, you know. That's what, you know, that's what I did when I was in uniform. Again, it gets overshadowed by the kinetic part, about the guns and the kicking in doors, you know, because that's what, you know, that's what the movies are made about. Nobody makes a movie about me going and teaching somebody, you know, how to do foreign internal defense and run a police force. That's boring. You know, nobody would come to that movie. You know, in fact, no one will ever make a movie about my life. It's too boring. You know, I need to do something exciting to make a movie about it. But, you know, that's just not the way it works.
Andrew Hammond: A Green Beret with a Ph.D. waging an intellectual insurgency. Who are some of the underpinnings of this intellectually? You come to military affairs of defense, the usual names get bandied about. Sun Tzu. Clausewitz. Mahan.
What are you drawing from? Are all of them, they're of limited utility or they're, you know -- I know there's lots of debates. I'm trying to formulate the question in a way that doesn't make me sound stupid.
Dr. Dennis Walters: No, you don't sound stupid at all.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, what are the intellectual underpinnings of this?
Dr. Dennis Walters: Really the underpinning for me now at this stage in my career is more on the social systems. And, again, I don't -- won't go too far into that. But Clare Graves and spiral dynamics is a huge one. And Don Beck is another noted author and researcher on that. And that is the social systems and understanding them and how the various -- within our own society, within the United States, for instance, understanding the different aspects of culture, you know, because we have everything from traditional culture in the United States, because that exists all the way up through postmodern culture.
Andrew Hammond: We don't have time to go into all of this, but your background's really fascinating because you've bootstrapped your way up from being an enlisted infantryman --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: -- through 82nd Airborne, First Armored Division and then commissioned into the Army Intelligence Corps then Special Forces qualifications. And then, quite interestingly, you were deployed to the Balkans as the head of a operational detachment. And then after that you were liaising with the Russian army in Tajikistan.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yep.
Andrew Hammond: And you speak fluent Russian. So a couple of questions that flow from that brief summary. Has Ukraine been -- helped you make your arguments or say -- or point to examples and say, look, here's Exhibit A, here's Exhibit B?
Dr. Dennis Walters: It's absolutely illustrative of the problem, and it's helped us. And that is the example that's pointed to every time we talk about IW and how we should be doing things differently. And there's no loss of numbers of examples that we could show from the Ukrainian conflict and the relationship piece and how critical that is, you know. Again, it's not a complete success. But it's certainly a good paradigm to use as a reference to, this is what we want to do, and this is why it's important. These relationships matter.
Andrew Hammond: You know, I've been so like focused on just digging into and understanding it --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Me too.
Andrew Hammond: It's been very enjoyable, but to bring out the intelligence component a bit more, you were commissioned then to Army intelligence. So this is something that's part of your background as well.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: So how does intelligence fit in all of this picture that we've just excavated? What's the role of intelligence in all of this?
Dr. Dennis Walters: So, first and foremost, we're not an intelligence organization. We would beneficiaries of intelligence, but it really, I think, the mindset probably is the -- what I bring from my time in intel, you know, and how you analyze all the information that's available. Intel is information that's been analyzed essentially. And really -- and, you know, I'm sure you're aware from what you do now in the Spy Museum, open source information is the name of the game now. And we are taking advantage of that inside the IW Center. And, you know, we've got something that we're about to release, as soon as we get it through all of the wickets that it's going to go through, that I think will be very relevant to our Ukrainian brothers and sisters and all of the folks in Eastern Europe that we got open source. Open source that we found it, we translate it, because it was not in English. And now we're going to do some analysis on it, and it's clearly a piece of propaganda and disinformation. Again, it's not intelligence. It's open source, we found it. But the processes of analyzing it and providing insight is close to intelligence. Again, you can't call it intelligence because it's not, but it's certainly analytical rigor applied to things that we're finding in open source.
Andrew Hammond: And when I think of intelligence now, I'm also thinking, I think, in the way that you think about irregular warfare. I'm thinking not just about, you know, espionage or human intelligence people running around in Vienna. I know you're not an intelligence agency, but I feel like intelligence flows into the IW Center and back out of it in so many different ways. Would you agree with that?
Dr. Dennis Walters: I absolutely would agree with that. And I think that's that network, that crowd sourcing ability that I mentioned, I think that will benefit a lot of people. And you could construe that as a form of intelligence. I mean, it's really what it is. It's an open source way to do that. But it definitely -- the information coming in and how you manage it and how you analyze it and how you interpret it is really important. And that really, again, back to the authority piece, now we have the ability to bring in, you know, our civilian universities and all these other, you know, really intelligent people that deal with any number of problems, we now have that ability to partner with. And that's a novel piece for the Defense Department.
Andrew Hammond: Another thing that I was going to ask you about was the -- I've read some people say that the United States, for example, suffers from a failure of strategic imagination and that a large part of this is because of an obsession with World War Two. We're still loving the good war. That's now the vision the people that are in charge think about. It's, you know, even if you look at where the money's getting spent, it's on, you know, capital ships. It's on aircraft and tanks. I think I read somewhere that someone says, every sailor knows that if a general war breaks out with China, they're going to be at the bottom of the Taiwan Straits because they're going to be flooded with hypersonic missiles. So --
Dr. Dennis Walters: Right.
Andrew Hammond: -- wasting money like, just buying ships. So I just wondered if you had any thoughts about that? About, you know, this machine that's going by itself because of the legacy network, because of the grooves that already been worked out. So this whole machine and all of this money's going in a particular direction, and you're trying to turn around, you know, not just the super tanker, but 100 super tankers. I just wondered if you had any thoughts on that given your sort of approach and your innovative way of looking at all of this and the way that, you know, big military is kind of stuck going down a particular route?
Dr. Dennis Walters: It's a bit of a double-edged sword with that. I mean, the military industrial complex, we all agree, is it's phenomenally large. But -- and, again, I'm not advocating that we do away with manufacturing those, you know, ships and jets and plane, all the things that go with that. Because, if you didn't have them, then you would be perceived as weak from our adversaries, and, you know, we would be vulnerable at that point. So, you know, I think that there's room for both of those aspects. Again, you know, I'm working that little insurgency; right? I'm trying to change the hearts and minds a little bit at a time. But I'm not advocating that we move away from traditional defense, because that's, you know, we can't. I mean, that's something that we absolutely have to keep. The good news is, you know, this piece that I'm bringing is cheap. You know, it doesn't cost. I mean, my entire center's budget wouldn't pay for one of the, you know, Raptor air jets. You know, it wouldn't pay for any of that. But I don't need that kind of money. You know, I don't need that. You know, it's very cheap to work in the realm of ideas, and that's my corner of the realm is ideas. So that's what I'm bringing to this. You know, it's just, we're going to let that industrial complex keep churning out the planes and the tanks and all of that because it's important, and it makes the people that like it happy. So we'll let them keep doing that. But while they're doing that, we're also going to work this little insurgency on the other side to convince people that there's other ways to deal with these irregular problems globally.
Andrew Hammond: And say someone's listening to this and they want to crowd source a problem, or they want to tap into your ideas. Like how do they go about doing that? Or, you know, who keeps this network of people that have came through the system? Is there gatekeepers? Or is this part of the IWC now, they should reach out to the IWC?
Dr. Dennis Walters: Yes. I think the initial -- and, again, you know, we do have a repository for the network. It's not anywhere near the size that I would like it to be yet, but the initial point of entry would be through the center. You know, and there's, you know, we've got the website up. We've got all the social media platforms up. And, again, the great example is the call we had this morning with our colleagues in Eastern Europe. They found out about, you know, the center through a personal connection, through one of the universities that they happened to be going to. So, you know, that's the word of mouth and the relationship piece that's so powerful.
Andrew Hammond: Okay. Wow, okay. Well, I think I've -- I think we've covered a lot of ground. I'm happy that I understand it much better now. And hopefully that comes across to the listeners. So sorry if I just kept go going back on things, but I just wanted to make sure I got it straight in my head.
Dr. Dennis Walters: It's complicated. It's an irregular problem.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Thank you so much.
Dr. Dennis Walters: Thank you.
Andrew Hammond: This has been a pleasure. Thank you. Thanks.
Erin Dietrick: Thank you for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Coming up in next week's show.
Unidentified Person: The Babington plot itself, it is a significant, unique paradox in that the conspirators, the Catholics who want to remove Elizabeth probably want to kill her, end up killing their own queen, Mary. It's a paradox that the English intelligence service was able to infiltrate and actually manipulate the conspirators that led to Mary Stuart's death.
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