SpyCast 7.25.23
Ep 595 | 7.25.23

"Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy" – with Michael Vickers


Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. The museum has been producing the podcast for 17 years, and we have produced almost 600 episodes. I personally love pouring my heart and soul into the podcast, and I know Erin does too. Can we ask one small favor in return please? And it's totally free. Can you vote for "SpyCast" in the People's Choice Podcast Awards at podcastawards.com? It will literally take two minutes. And when you go to the site, you can vote for us in one, the history category, and two, the Adam Curry People's Choice Awards category. That's podcastawards.com. Because without you, our audience, "SpyCast" is like a tree falling in a forest with no one around to witness whether or not it made a sound. Coming up next on "SpyCast."

Michael Vickers: I was assigned to units trained to go behind enemy lines in eastern Europe before it broke out, including with a backpack nuclear weapon. It was a weapon that could be delivered by special operations personnel, a few green berets or seals, and then put in place and then activated with a timer. That weapon was called the special atomic demolition munition. It was -- it was a sporty -- you know, it seemed like a good idea when I was 23 years old. So there you have it.

[ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: This week's episode features a legend of special operations, intelligence, and strategy. Michael Vickers. He rose from U.S Army private to oversee the sprawling U.S defense intelligence community as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. This included the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. He started out with no degree and ended up with an MBA from Wharton and a PhD from Johns Hopkins. Oops. It seems like I forgot to mention that he had a CIA career in the middle of this where he was the program manager for the CIA's longest and largest covert action, the effort to fund the mujahideen after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I could have spoken to Michael for hours and hours and hours. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast." So I'm so pleased to speak to you, as I mentioned, Michael. I've known about you for a long time, and I'm so glad now that your book gives me the opportunity to meet you. So congratulations on the book, and I look forward to digging into a little bit more with you as we proceed.

Michael Vickers: Pleasure to be with you, and especially now that I learned that you did your PhD on Afghanistan and the Soviet-Afghan war. So a kindred spirit.

Andrew Hammond: I spent an unhealthy amount of time on the Charlie Wilson papers in Nacogdoches, east Texas.

Michael Vickers: There you go. There you go. Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: So I'm just thinking. I've been thinking about a number of ways to structure this interview, and you're -- your life is so intertwined with so much of the foreign policy history of the past generation. So obviously we can't do justice to all of that so I'm just going to stick to a few things so that we can pull out on them in depth, but I thought the best way to start -- you talk about in your book diving through a window and coming up shooting. And when I read that, it almost seemed to me like that was a metaphor for your life. So you -- you mentioned in the book that, you know, in some ways you're not maybe naturally the stereotypical CIA special forces guy. You talk about some of the issues with your eyesight and your perception and some of the other things that were going on. But then you -- your life was jumping through a window and coming up firing. Or that's the way it seems to me. Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about where that story comes from.

Michael Vickers: Sure. So I decided at age 19 after I realized my sports career had -- or sports dreams had come to an end to play baseball or football, that I wanted to be a CIA operations officer. A high school teacher had actually showed me a "New York Times" article about what the CIA was doing in Laos, and it intrigued me. And so I thought the best way to do that would be to be -- first become a green beret or special forces soldier and finish my college degree and then become a CIA officer. And I stayed in the special forces longer, 10 years, became an officer and commanded a counter-terrorism intelligence unit. But, you know, during those days in the Cold War we were really preparing certainly during my first five years for World War III in Europe, should it ever come. And so I was assigned to units trained to go -- trained to go behind enemy lines in eastern Europe before it broke out, including with a backpack nuclear weapon.

[ Inaudible ]

Michael Vickers: Yeah. And but I also had other training. You know, free fall parachuting, guerrilla warfare, weapons, demolitions, stuff that would come in very handy later in CIA [inaudible] mountain climbing. But one of them that you referred to was a training program with the British Special Air Service. In the SAS we were just getting into the counter terrorism business in the late 1970s and creating special units, and so we sent some of our special operators to training because the British had more recent experience and sophisticated tactics. And so, you know, a lot of it was standard room clearing and -- and other things. But some of the most exciting parts was learning how to enter a building including diving through a window. So we started off practicing diving through mock ups, wooden mock ups that you'd have to leap through, do a somersault, and shoot with a handgun at a target. And then eventually a regular window. And I -- you know, with gloves and everything else. And I admit I was a little apprehensive when I first tried it. I sure hope this works. But -- but it did.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. And I think that you just mentioned there your journey. I think your journey's really fascinating from a private in the -- in the army to the undersecretary of defense for intelligence which oversees 300,000 people or something.

Michael Vickers: Lots. Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: So a lot of people. And then from an average student at school to getting a PhD. I mean the -- the journey that you've been on is quite an incredible one. Can you -- can you tell us a little bit more about the journey?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So it -- you know, I was a very uneven student which should be a polite way to say it, you know. Did very well in elementary school when you didn't have to do a lot of homework. The more we had homework and more advanced classes, the more I dreamed about my football or baseball success and so did a little less well. But when I applied myself, I did well. Once I went into the special forces, I realized I was now in a serious business and I had to do well at everything including school. And that, that really kind of turned me around academically and then of course passing these difficult training courses there and in CIA.

Andrew Hammond: And tell our listeners a little bit more about the nuclear backpack because this is a story a lot of them may not know about that's kind of crazy and insane.

Michael Vickers: Sure. So, you know, during the Cold War nuclear weapons were a central part of it. Not just for strategic deterrents or mutually assured destruction with the big systems, but beginning in the 1950s as part of an offset strategy to make up for Soviet numerical superiority in Europe a lot of tactical or battlefield weapons were developed for artillery, for mines of various kinds, tactical bombs dropped by aircraft. Even some anti tank weapons. So one of those was a weapon that could be delivered by special operations personnel, a few green berets or seals, and then put in place and then activated with a timer, you know subject to the national command authority's approval and all the codes and everything. And so I was one of those who were trained to deliver that weapon by parachute or other means, and then to -- to employ it. That weapon was called the special atomic demolition munition. You know, so it was man portable. Small yield compared to other weapons, but enough to retard a Soviet advance or interdict their second echelon forces. And then, you know, toward the end of the Cold War it went out of existence as a lot of other weapons did. You know, thank heavens. But it was -- it was a sporty -- you know, it seemed like a good idea when I was 23 years old. So there you have it.

Andrew Hammond: A lot of things seem like a good idea when you're 23 years old.

Michael Vickers: Right.

Andrew Hammond: Did you ever have to put on an actual nuclear weapon or was it like that you were training, what, blind so to speak or --

Michael Vickers: Yeah. The training is both on a realistic dummy weapon, but a -- but a, you know, real in most respects -- and then with the actual device too. Not to detonate it, but to go through all the procedures because some of it took delicate handling and other things since you had to make sure you could do it.

Andrew Hammond: So you literally had a nuclear weapon strapped to your back.

Michael Vickers: No. No. Well, not -- not for -- for parachuting. Yeah. It's behind your legs or in front of your legs depending on what kind of jump you're doing. But to actually learn how to arm it and everything else, you had to practice with the real weapon.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. Wow. That incredible. And just very briefly before we move on to the CIA, did you ever at any point think, "I want to stay in special forces." You know, obviously you stayed there for 10 years so you enjoyed it, but did you ever -- were you ever tempted to not follow through on your boyhood dream of going to the CIA and instead just continuing in the army?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. I originally thought when I went into special forces that I would only stay for -- my initial enlistment was for three years. And so I thought I would do three years, and then maybe a bit longer. But it took me longer to complete my degree because I was so involved in so many things. And -- and so I finally completed it after I became an officer. And -- and, you know -- and I did really love what I was doing. That's why I stayed longer. But, you know, beginning about the seven year point I thought, "All right. When I finish this next assignment, it's really my critical decision point and I'm still likely to go to CIA." Because I thought I could make a bigger contribution to our nation's security and the Cold War. You know, the CIA was really on the front lines of the Cold War. Special forces did a lot too, but mostly in things like Vietnamese or El Salvador when we had, you know, major counterinsurgencies or, you know, otherwise you're preparing for World War III like the rest of the military. And so I felt, you know, one of the reasons I went into the special forces and the CIA was I wanted to be somewhere where an individual could really make an operational difference in national security. And so that thought stayed with me and why I went to CIA.

Andrew Hammond: And I'm just wondering it seems to me that there's a lot of drive inside your story. So even when you joined special forces, you go to one recruiter and he says, "Join the regular army. Go to ranger school. And then try for special forces. You've got a better chance." But you're like, "Nope. Nope. Nope. I want to do special forces." You found the right recruiter. You joined up. And then despite the fact that you're spread very thin all over the place, you're still working away on your degree, it seems to me that there's a lot of drive built in there. Where -- where does that come from? Is that something you were born with? Is that something that a penny dropped one day? Is that something that it was a dream initially and then the special forces give me the discipline and the -- and the drive to be able to achieve things after that? Like just help me understand where this comes from.

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So, you know, when I was growing up I dreamed of doing great things. A lot of them were really in sports, and -- and they were just dreams. That's -- that's all they were. But I think that stayed with me as I decided I wanted a really adventurous career that would really test my mettle. And then, you know, once you go into the special forces, you know you have to make it, but you have to continually prove yourself at this or that. You know, lots of different things. Learning languages. Learning very difficult physical skills from hand to hand combat to mountain climbing to free fall. You know, you name it. You know, I don't know if it's, you know, one I just wanted to be the best I could, but this -- and take on the most difficult assignments. So I volunteered for these things over and over. You know, there's also once you're in, you don't want to fail. You know, I mean there seemed like there would be a real stigma. You know, something else doesn't work out in your life, it doesn't work out, and you go on to whatever else. Here I really felt like I wanted to succeed, but had to succeed. And that carried with me, you know, from the special forces through -- through CIA. You know, I would say to some degree I kind of vaguely planned out my life and it worked out well into my early 30s. There were a lot of obvious surprises I didn't expect beyond my wildest imagination. But after that, you know, even though I made decisions to go to graduate school or come back into government at a senior level, there was still a lot of serendipity to it at that point. And, you know, still the same drive to make the biggest contribution you can, but -- but different then.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. And then you go to CIA. So this is 1983. Is that correct?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. I applied in 1982 and then joined in June of '83.

Andrew Hammond: And did that fulfill all of those fantasies and dreams that you had when you were a young boy? Were there some things that you were like, "Oh. I didn't expect this." And then other ones where you were like, "Oh. This is exactly as I expected it to be."

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So it's a mixture. So I had had a lot of training. I, you know, had more operational experience and -- a little bit older and a lot more training than my classmates coming in, you know. All very talented people, but you know I was the only special operator in my class. And -- and so some of the training was, you know, redundant to what I had already had and less exciting. And I learned some things, things I thought I wanted to do when I went in or when I was applying to CIA and thinking about CIA. You know, handling Soviet agents in Moscow. I decided I really liked the covert action side better where we were fighting the Cold War. And so that was a, you know -- a bit of an epiphany. And but it did exceed my wildest dreams. You know, I had a -- part of my operational training at CIA consisted of courses and on the job assignments. And during my first on the job assignment, you know, I was given a -- a tasking by the -- my chief to look at how we could break an asset out of jail and design using other assets a smuggler's network to do a jail break and get a guy out. And I thought, "This is why I joined CIA." Not to sit on a desk, but to do stuff like this. You know, and -- and then a few weeks after that when the decision was made to invade Grenada I was chosen to be part of the three man team that went in with the initial invasion force. And, you know, that was just unheard of to send not only a very new CIA officer, but one who hadn't even been to operational training yet. You know, my boss thought, "Look. You've got all the special forces training. That's what I really need for this operation." And so into Grenada I went. And one thing led to another and then eventually Afghanistan. So it was an extraordinary time, and it's -- there's just no place like CIA.

Andrew Hammond: So you mentioned serendipity. So one of the things that I want to speak to you about is the -- is the Soviet-Afghan war and your role in that. So talking about serendipity, do you -- I'm guessing that Gust Avrakotos, he kind of identifies you as someone that he wants on his team because of your extensive background in special forces and going to Grenada and so forth. Is that -- is that correct? You're in the right place at the right time.

Michael Vickers: Pretty much. So when I finished my training I was given a choice of a bunch of different assignments and one of the agency's top officers said, "We would like you to be our first case to create our future covert action leadership of the agency. And so you can alternate between covert action assignments and regular human intelligence collection assignments and you'll have a real fast track to the top ranks." And so I initially got assigned to the agency's paramilitary arm called ground branch and special operations group at the time. And, you know, there were wars going on and I wanted to be part of them in some way. And then just a couple weeks in congressman Charlie Wilson had increased the Afghanistan covert action program budget by 300%. The agency had asked for a 10% increase, and Congress gave us 300%. So the program quadrupled in size. And they were creating a new position that would be the covert action program officer to administer the program, but also the chief paramilitary operations advisor. And Gust had heard about me and my experience as you referred to both in the special forces, but also in CIA and Grenada, and I'd done some counter-terrorism stuff after the Beirut bombings after Hizballah blew up our marine barracks, and American embassy before that with truck bombs. And, you know, offered me the job. And I thought, "Gosh. You know, 300% increase in resources, get to fight our main enemy." You know, I thought I was going to go to Central America or elsewhere and fight one the proxies. This was like a dream come true. So, you know, part of it I think was background, part of it was just serendipity. Right time and right background and right boss, to be honest.

Andrew Hammond: And I guess, as you said, there it's also great if you're taking over a program instead of scratching and fighting for resources.

Michael Vickers: Right. Right.

Andrew Hammond: Or like here's three times, you know --

Michael Vickers: Well, and that's the interesting thing. So as I developed a new strategy for, you know, what are we going to do with this big increase in resources, as I did that over time I started to think, "Well, maybe we can actually win rather than just impose costs on the Soviet occupation." And so four months into the job when I was in Islamabad, Pakistan with Gust, I sent a cable back to headquarters that said, you know, "To win this thing." You know, and I should add that there was a lot of angst when this money was forced on CIA, this quadrupling of the budget. And, you know -- and that would we not be able to use it all efficiently and everything else. And four months in I said, "You know what? We really need another doubling to really have a chance at winning." And that caused even more heart palpitations, but we ended up getting the money a couple of months later and the rest is history.

[ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: For this interlude, here's a quick primer on the Soviet-Afghan war so that you can thoroughly digest this episode. The facts are these. One. Afghanistan had been ruled by a communist government since 1978. Two. The communists had staged a coup and came to power, but then remained bitterly divided among themselves. Three. The communist system was deeply antithetical to traditional Afghan society. Not least, its espousal of atheism. Four. This government faced indigenous resistance movements and asked the Soviets for help. Five. After much hemming and hawing in Moscow, they decided to go on, and the war began when the Soviet Union invaded on Christmas day 1979. Six. The mujahideen were the Afghans waging guerrilla warfare against the Soviets. Seven. The United States viewed the invasion as an attempt to get within 300 miles of the Persian Gulf oil fields leading Jimmy Carter to declare, "Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be repelled by any means necessary including military force." This is the Carter Doctrine. Hands off the Persian Gulf. Eight. The invasion led to the longest and largest covert operation in CIA history which our guest Michael Vickers was part of. They seemed to arm and fund the Afghan mujahideen. Nine. [Inaudible] Afghan mujahideen who were fighting for national liberation. Not people like Osama Bin Laden who along with other radicalized Arabs inserted themselves into the Afghan struggle for different reasons which is not to say that there was no overlap. I'd read Steve Coll's book "Ghost Wars" if you want to understand more. 10. In 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev declared the war a bleeding wound, and looked for an exit strategy. 11. The war lasted until 1989 when the Soviets withdrew, making this the longest war in the history of the Soviet Union. 12. Historians still debate the effect that this bleeding wound had on the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

[ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: One thing that I've always found fascinating, you've got the CIA and then you've got Congress. And Congress by and large is bipartisan support for the covert action in Afghanistan. And then in the CIA, you know, people quite often talk about the CIA as one unitary corporate body, but there was -- there was different points of view and different voices within the CIA. Some people were saying, "I don't -- I don't think this is a good idea." And I guess what I'm trying to get at is how much of this was Congress pushing and there were some actors within CIA that saw the way the wind was blowing and went, "Great. This is a great idea." And then other people were like, "This is wrong. We need to stop Congress kind of pushing us into something we don't want to do."

Michael Vickers: Yeah. It's a mixture. So, one, you know covert action programs are directed by the White House, and then they have to be funded by Congress. You know, we've had this system since the late 1970s for presidential finding and then goes to Congress and then they -- they resource it or not resource it as they see fit. And so CIA responded very quickly to the Soviet invasion. President Jimmy Carter at the time signed a lethal covert action finding three days after the Soviet invasion in December, late December 1979. And CIA had weapons and [inaudible] hands within 10 days. And then the program kind of went on auto pilot for the first five years or so until 1984 when congressman Wilson imposed this great funding. You know, and the political objective, as I said, was to just impose costs on the Soviet occupation. The analysts believed there's no chance the Soviet army could be defeated. They hadn't been defeated in their history. And, you know -- and so that's how things were when I entered on the scene. And, you know -- and, as I mentioned, there was concern particularly -- we had a really stalwart deputy CIA director John McMahon who'd served in all parts of the agency and was a great, great manager. And he was concerned with this big increase in resources that the agency might get left holding the bag at the end of the day. You know, if things went wrong and -- and we didn't do it. But -- but, you know, accepted the resources and turned out used them wisely. And within Congress there was different criticisms from the left and the right about whether we were managing the program properly or quixotic, you know fighting to the last Afghan that had no chance to win, etcetera. And, you know, some of those debates just continued. Particularly something this big there's bound to be different points of view. So -- so there were, but generally my chain of command was very aligned on the strategy. And one of the reasons I think we were successful is we had great partners in Congress or the core of Congress supporting the White House, support among the cabinet officials, secretary of defense, secretary of state, and their key subordinates. And then within CIA from me to the chief of South Asia operations to the chief of the near east and South Asia division to the deputy director for operations and then to Bill Casey. You know, so it's a pretty lean chain of command, and there was strong support. And, you know, Bill Casey came around to the view that maybe we could win this thing.

Andrew Hammond: And help me understand, and correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it the -- the basics of the -- of the covert action were in place during the Carter administration, the logistical pipeline, the -- the finances, the presidential finding, and then during the Reagan administration it gets taken on to like really different levels, but the -- the basic pipeline is already there by the time Reagan comes along. Is that correct?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So the basic relationships, the relationship with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia who matched us dollar for dollar, Egypt, even the Chinese came on a little bit later, a few years into the program as a supplier of ours, and the Brits and others, you know that was in place. There were three findings, two non lethal, one lethal. They were all in place. What really changed was the big increase in resources in 1984, the quadrupling of the budget, and then in a strategic review at the end of 1984 and the beginning of President Reagan's second term President Reagan decided with inter-agency support including from me and my bosses at CIA to change our objective from imposing costs on the Soviet occupation to driving them out. And in the working papers there was even this phrase, you know, among strategic courses of action, you know, stay the course, do this, do that, drive them out by all means available. And I said, "Oh. That's the one I want to do." And liked it so much 40 years later made it the title of my book. But -- and so that was one of the big turning points. But, as you say, it was a function of scale. You know, the covert pipeline, the logistics network had to be expanded dramatically because what we were putting in went up by a factor of almost 10. When a program changes dramatically in scale or scope, resources or mission or whatever it is, you have to notify Congress that, "Hey. We're doing this thing." And of course they were on board, but paperwork's still very thick.

Andrew Hammond: One of the things that I always find quite interesting is you're the Afghanistan covert action program manager, and then in Islamabad you have the chief of station, and then back in -- is it back in Washington you have the chief of the near east and South Asia division, and then under him you have the -- the South Asia chief. So it would be near east, South Asia division, South Asia, and then on the other side you've got the chief of station in Islamabad, but you would -- you would be shuttling between both of them or would just be spending most of your time in Pakistan or in the border region. Are you doing almost like shuttle diplomacy trying to keep all of this thing going and coordinated?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. It's a great question. So, you know, within the near east and South Asia division it's divided in half essentially. Morocco. At least in those days. Morocco to the Persian Gulf and then Iran over. So you had two deputies. My boss had the South Asia part. You know, Iran to Bangladesh including Afghanistan. And the program was global in scope. You know, it had a -- a network, a secret coalition, you know. As I mentioned, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the U.K, and others. And -- and so I had to travel to them regularly to meet with mujahideen commanders, to meet with our intelligence service counterparts, Pakistan on strategy or funding with Saudi Arabia or ordinance supply with China and/or new weapons with the Brits. You know, that took Prime Minister Thatcher's approval. And so I spent a fair amount of time traveling to all these different places to make this program work, but also then in Washington. And a key part of the success of the program was really shifting strategic control or more strategic control from Pakistan to CIA headquarters. You mentioned the chief of station in Islamabad. You know, normally we -- we give general guidance and the field operators, you know, under a chief of station execute their operations. And because we wanted to do this dramatic escalation, you know Pakistan was the front line state with all the strategic risks. So during the first five years of the program we let them determine a lot of what weapons went in and how much and everything else. Then President Zia, the president of Pakistan at the time, said, you know, "It's Pakistan's prerogative to determine the temperature at which the pot boils." And so our job was to convince him to raise that temperature up a lot as well as to convince the Chinese and others to go along with us. And so the strategic control really shifted to Washington for two years between -- in these decisive years between '84 and '86 to put this war wining strategy in place. And then it shifted back to the field for the final years really with the chief of station executing it. And headquarters, you know there were no strategic decisions made after -- of any consequence after March '86. So the last, you know, Soviets withdrew finally in February '89. The resources had peaked in October '85. You know, it was just sustaining that effort for the final three years. And the Soviets had made the decision to leave in late '85, and then you know progressively implemented it over the next three years.

Andrew Hammond: I mean it's fascinating to me the issue of the Stingers. Could you talk about the impact of those a little more? So many of our listeners may know what they are, but quite a few won't. So just tell them what a Stinger is and how this ended up on the battlefield and the effect that it had.

Michael Vickers: Sure. So the Stinger is a man portable air defense weapon or anti-air weapon that is a fire and forget round. Once it locks on to -- and fairly short range. You know, a few kilometers from the target. But once you lock on to that target, it's a heat seeking missile and it can attack the aircraft from any direction. So it's a very sophisticated sensor. And once you launch it, it -- it goes to the aircraft. And so there's other heat seeking missiles. We used Soviet weapons. SA-7s. But they could only hit an aircraft from behind so you had to either have the aircraft fly over you which exposes you to danger, and then a sensor could be deceived by flares or other. So they were good, but not as optimal as a Stinger. And then a British blowpipe was a radio controlled weapon that was very good. Big warhead. But you had to guide it to the target with a joystick. Think like, you know, our video gamers today would be phenomenal at this, but at the time it was tough to do. And, you know, to keep the -- the missile on target. And those missiles in combination were critical to turning the air balance around. And so -- and they also were different in the sense that our most covert programs tend to use the weapons of our adversary. So in this case like the SA-7. But other Soviet block weapons. As you start to mix effectiveness with secrecy, you then may go to Western weapons, European weapons. So the blowpipe being the example in this case, but you know it could be Belgian riffles or machine guns or other things. And then where deniability is less important than effectiveness, you may go to U.S weapons in selected circumstances. And that's what we finally did with the Stinger. And so the Stinger was enormously effective in Afghanistan, had at about an 80% kill rate. More effective than these other anti-air weapons. But it wasn't introduced until September '86, and by the time that it was introduced we had already been escalating the war for two years. Soviet leader Gorbachev had made the decision to withdraw. And so it kind of -- it was dramatic on the battlefield, it boosted insurgent morale, but it kind of was kicking the Soviets in the butt on the way out. It didn't turn the war around so much. It convinced them just keep heading for the exit.

Andrew Hammond: It was pushing on an open door.

Michael Vickers: Pushing on an open door kind of thing. Yeah. So that's where people misunderstand that they think that this won the war. You know, the war was essentially won by then, and this helped reinforce that, but that's -- that's the timeline.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I find that fascinating. Just to briefly move on, so the -- the covert action in Afghanistan and you're involved in the events -- post 9-11 you're involved in the post 9-11 war. So, you know you've probably got as good a vantage point on the -- the broad sweep of all of this as anybody. And but later on there were Monday morning [inaudible] they were saying a lot of these arms went to the most radical groups or, you know, the ISI. They were distributing them to, you know, their own political creatures and so forth. And there's a whole idea of blow back and, you know -- and then an idea of blow back. I've even seen professors conflate Al-Qaeda and the canon network and the Taliban and all of this. And, you know, the Taliban weren't around when the covert action took place. Al-Qaeda only came along right at the very end. So everything gets very confused and very messy, but you know you've lived through this. So just tell us what your, you know -- what's your take on all of this?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So there's a -- you know, there's a tiny bit of truth to part of it, but -- but most of it is inaccurate. You know, there is not a straight line between the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the 9-11 attacks. There's a lot of history that takes place, a lot of political decisions and strategic decisions by our government and others that, you know, result in that tragedy that could have gone the other way. But so to the first point, you know, as you rightly said, the Taliban -- what became the Taliban were junior foot soldiers, and they didn't even exist. They didn't exist until the '90s as a movement. And they were young kids essentially or foot soldiers mostly who, you know, just weren't on our radar screen. They were just part of this 150 to 200,000 full time fighters and another couple hundred thousand part time, you know, that was part of the large Afghan insurgency. And Al-Qaeda, and we call them Afghan Arabs, but they were, you know, Arabs who went to the jihad, they were mostly in the Pakistan border region providing support of various kinds. Medical services. Construction services. Running camps. Other things. A couple of them would go in for combat from time to time to, you know, have their picture taken right across the border or things like that, but they -- we didn't know who Osama Bin Laden was in those days at all. And he was not a big figure. Al-Qaeda wasn't formed until 1988. And the Afghan Arabs numbered in the few thousands, you know. So they were insignificant strategically, and you know again not -- not really on our radar screen. They didn't have any Stingers. Stingers were very controlled. Now the part that's true a bit, you know, there were seven political parties among the resistance, four more Islamists and three more secular traditionalists, royalists or you know various flavors. And the Islamist parties generally had the most troops under arms and were the better fighters. And the Pakistanis favored one group in particular, Gulbiddin Hekmatyar. But we were able to balance among the other groups, one led by Burhanuddin Rabbani with Ahmad Shah Massoud as the main commander and others and a couple of others. And after 9-11 when Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were kicked out of Afghanistan by the U.S invasion, two of those leaders, Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis who were a subset of this one group [inaudible] went over to the insurgency or already had in one case. The other two became part of the government. You know, and their commanders were all part of the new Afghan government. And so, you know, it's a bit more of a mixed -- mixed bag. And then if you look at the period there, you know 1989 was a year of enormous success. Not only did the Soviets withdraw, but you know eastern Europe was liberated, Berlin Wall fell, and so U.S attention really started shifting to our main interests in Europe and how to reunify Germany and consolidate the liberation of eastern Europe, etcetera, which was done successfully. You know, and I think at the time, you know, Afghanistan was, okay, mission accomplished. You know, we have less interest in this place once the Soviets, and particularly after the resistance comes to power. And then there was legislative requirement that we had to cut off aid to Pakistan in 1990 I think called the Pressler Amendment because of when they were on a path to nuclear weapons that the president couldn't certify that they weren't, and that happened there and so all aid was cut off. So we had a real hiatus with Pakistan for 12 years. So the Taliban get formed up, ISI back. There's a civil war in Afghanistan. They're back Hekmatyar. It's very destructive. Kabul's in ruins. U.S is focused elsewhere. You know, we're disengaged from that region. And the Taliban get formed. ISI helps them. They give up on Hekmatyar. They come to power in '96. They invite Al-Qaeda in. Al-Qaeda does training camps. But even in that period, you know, if we had the foresight to know what would happen with global jihadist groups and the scale of the attacks they would plot on 9-11, our core principle of counter-terrorism after 9-11 was to deny them sanctuary. And we should have done that, you know, as we saw, as we had intelligence that these groups were gathering. We did one cruise missile strike. We thought about a few other operations. It was wholly inadequate to the task, you know. So you have to look at a series of policy decisions or a wrong way to frame the problem that a threat is gathering. You know, and this happens a lot in history. You know, you -- you underestimate the magnitude of the threat that's coming. If you deal with it sooner, you know it might be easier than having to deal with it later. So that's -- that's pretty much what happened between, you know, 9-11 and the Soviet withdraw from Afghanistan.

Andrew Hammond: And can I ask did you like when you were the program officer, did you ever go into Afghanistan even if it was just walk up to the border and stick your toe on the other side and then brag about it?

Michael Vickers: Well, yeah. So I stick my toe -- stick my toe and bring it back, yeah. But no. The -- you know, we had a lot of surrogates that we could use from third -- third country nationals basically that could do that quite well. And the -- the strategic cost benefit analysis of having a CIA officer captured in Afghanistan versus using one of these surrogates just didn't make sense. So -- so yeah. Dipping the toes is about as much as we could do.

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Andrew Hammond: People [inaudible] or say get out the vote campaigns with politics, and these days politics depresses many people regardless of your country or party. But hey. If you vote for "SpyCast" in the People's Choice Podcast Awards at podcastawards.com, you'll be voting for something that brings you light instead of darkness, that brings you intelligence instead of party interpretations, and deep discussion rather than soundbites. So please pretty please with sugar on top vote for "SpyCast" in the history category at podcastawards.com. You know it makes sense.

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Andrew Hammond: Let's jump forward now to 9-11 and the post 9-11 period. So can you just tell our listeners where you were when 9-11 happened?

Michael Vickers: So I had -- I had co-founded a think tank. I was completing my PhD. And was working for the Department of Defense mainly on two issues. One was the rise of China to great power status. Done a lot of work on that in the '90s. And then this idea that information technologies and other technologies were transforming conventional war. And while the U.S had a monopoly on those capabilities kind of in the 1990s with Desert Storm and then the wars in the Balkans, eventually they would diffuse and diffuse asymmetrically. China would be the most likely beneficiary of that, but that would cause us real problems in the 2020 time frame in terms of power projection in the western Pacific. So surface ships and air bases and other things would become more vulnerable. Wrote about things like this. The thing we talk about today [inaudible] serial denial strategies, you know really came about in that period. And then, you know, I thought, you know, with the Cold War ended, I thought, you know, "I'm done with intelligence. I'm done with special operations. I'm done with covert action. You know, the next big thing is China and this technological revolution, and that won't happen for a couple decades, but we've got to get ready." So I shifted more to the strategic realm. I'm done with Afghanistan. You name it. I was wrong about everything except China. And so after 9-11, you know, I got my course correction to start really dealing with Al-Qaeda.

Andrew Hammond: It's like the "Godfather 3" just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Michael Vickers: Right. Right. Right.

Andrew Hammond: So -- so you get pulled back into this, but just before we go on to that, I mean listening to you talk there it's almost like the things that you were working on in the '90s are the things that everybody's talking about now. China and disruptive technologies. So I'm just wondering how much do you buy into the argument that the -- the post 9-11 wars were really -- appeared when America's adversaries stole a march on America. The idea that the ball was taken off the main prize. You know, counter-terrorism was never the main strategic threat to America's existence. China and cryptography or something like that actually were. So sure 9-11 happened. We had to do something. We should just have decapitated Al-Qaeda and -- and kind of left because $2.3 trillion into Afghanistan and it falls within a matter of days. So that would have allowed us to stay back and focus on the -- the real threat that's come, the real more existential threat that's coming down the pipeline. So I mean there's a lot going on there, but I just wondered as a strategic thinker what are your thoughts on this?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So I -- I don't think it's correct, in a sense, that, you know, Al-Qaeda's attacks on 9-11 killed more Americans than the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. So it was -- and they had plans for lots of other things. And so people forget kind of the -- the danger that we really felt between, you know, September 11, 2001 and say 2003 or so. And even it continued through the decade as Al-Qaeda got new sanctuaries and plot -- you know, that's why you know the Transatlantic airliner plot to blow up pan airliners flying out of the U.K in 2006 is why we have all these TSA restrictions and how TSA came into existence. So, you know, it was a very serious thread that had to be dealt with. How much we should have focused on, you know -- was the invasion of Iraq a strategic mistake? Yes. I think it was. I think we did get distracted there. Should we have had more minimal objectives focused on our core counter-terrorism objectives in Afghanistan? Yes. I agree with that. So we made a series of -- I think our withdraw was misguided to hand the Taliban a victory. I think we could have kept them at bay with just advisors and -- and the threat of air power. Not very satisfying because it's a stalemate, but better than a defeat which emboldens the jihadists. But it doesn't follow that -- you know, there is a cost particularly to large scale counterinsurgency operations both politically and in terms of the direction the military goes in. But there's also bureaucratic inertia and service cultures and other things that play a role. So I don't believe in like strategic monism, that you know choose China or Al-Qaeda. You know, okay. Well, I'm on Al-Qaeda's on I'm China. You know, you've got to be able to do both. The question is how you balance it. Just like you need nuclear forces, conventional forces, special operations forces, intelligence, and they need to be in balance appropriate to the threats. And so we started in 2006 starting to really address the China problem. Started a new bomber that finally became the B-21 bomber, and I had a pretty big role in that. Started expanding our submarine force again because undersea warfare is an area of American dominance, and it's less -- our submarines are less vulnerable than our surface ships. Space capability. Cyber. You know, a lot of things that we would need to deter China were put in motion then. So, you know, now they're mostly for deterrent purposes. We hope the deterrent works. What's really changed. You know, we saw China's economic rise beginning the 1980s and continuing over four decades. But that they would become a serious technological rival to us in emerging technologies, really, really disruptive technologies. You know, not the ones we had during the dot com boom, but now artificial intelligence on steroids which has really only happened in the last decade or so. Synthetic biology. Quantum technologies. Particularly quantum computing. And that's shifted the competition more toward a system level competition. You know, one political and economic system versus another and its capacity for innovation. You know, it's raised it to a national strategic level rather than a military operational level, but that was something I don't think, you know, could have been so easily foreseen in say 2001, 2005, you know. You know, we were still thinking then of how do I deter this China that can threaten our ability to project power in the Pacific. Well, we need longer range stealth aircraft. We need submarines. We need this. We need to be able to win in the new domains in space and cyber. So that's where my views have changed in the last I'd say 10 years about really seeing this economic and technological competition as central. You know, when you look back from 2050. So do I think that that may be what determines what the world looks like in the second half of the 21st century? I do, but I don't think our wars in Al-Qaeda have much to do with that.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. Okay. Yeah. I hear what you're saying. You know, you have to do a bunch of different things at the same time. It's just a question of balance. So I guess the question would have been was there too much of the balance on the post 9-11 wars and not enough of it on China and disruptive technology.

Michael Vickers: Well, and the other thing I would say is, you know, it's more the political costs of some of these wars. You know, because we fought -- these wars were essentially intelligence, special operations, and ground force wars. And so when you look at the China problem, it's an air, maritime, space, and cyber problem. You know? And so the air force and navy and stuff, we're only barely engaged in these wars. You know? So they had plenty of time to get ready for China because that was their job. Right?

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. I get that. And -- and just, you know, because your book is on intelligence, special forces, and strategy, so the special forces part of -- I've heard, if I remember correctly, or maybe it was in your book, the number of special forces doubled, the budget tripled, and the deployments quadrupled. So there's a sort of burn out of special forces or maybe they were overused or over relied upon. Well, what are your views on that, Michael?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So I oversaw the biggest numerical expansion of our special operations forces in our history. And we really paid attention to the quality of the force and the training base, but there's still -- we, you know -- we couldn't help it. We used them so much because they were central to our war efforts, to modern counter-insurgency and to actions in other countries where we weren't at war, but we had Al-Qaeda threats or others that, you know, they were doing 1 to 1 or 1 to 2 deployments for 10 years. You know? So you go for six months. You're back for six months. You go back into combat for six months. And you do this 10 times or 12 times or something. And so that takes a toll on families. It takes a toll on operators. It takes a different toll on force readiness for other things because you can't be training to do, you know, some of the high order tasks that you may never have to do, but -- you know, if you fight a great power, but you've still got to be proficient in them. And, you know, so there -- there was a cost. So even -- you know, as you said, doubling the manpower and tripling the budget, there was still a cost with using them four times as much.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Well, that's especially really fascinating. And I just want to move on now to your time as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence because I think that's a -- that's a really fascinating role, and it's one that, you know, your average person the street may not know about. So just tell us how you got the job and what the job is all about for people that don't -- that don't know.

Michael Vickers: Sure. So the position was created at the request of secretary -- then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, and I was the third undersecretary of defense for intelligence. I assumed the job at the beginning of 2011. And its purpose was to have one top official in the Department of Defense which hadn't existed until then, one senior official, that had authority, direction, and control over all defense intelligence elements because secretary of defense can't do that. He's busy with other stuff. Same with the deputy. And it was for decades -- it was delegated lower in the bureaucracy. And, you know, you have service secretaries for the army, navy, and air force. You know, and as you mentioned, there's -- you know, most of our intelligence community resides within the Department of Defense. There's the CIA that's independent, and then there are parts that are in other cabinet agencies with the FBI as part of justice being the biggest element. Most of the others are small. But defense has, I don't know, 60/70% of the budget and the people and it numbers in a couple hundred thousand. And when you add the contractors, it's -- it's more than that. And so it was an important management reform. And, you know -- and the big agencies you have are the National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, but also all the intelligence components of the combat and commands in the services. And so it's a -- it's a pretty big enterprise. And so when I came back into government they expanded the traditional special operations oversight, the assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict, to include given my background I think called interdependent capabilities. And so I had policy oversight of everything from nuclear weapons, space, missile defense, cyber, conventional force transformation, and special operations forces and all the operational stuff. And so then in -- the Obama administration asked Secretary Gates, Jim Clapper, and me to stay on. So I continued that job for a couple years. And then when Jim Clapper got nominated to be director of national intelligence, they asked me to be undersecretary of defense for intelligence and I did that for four years. And I continued a lot of my counter-terrorism work. The Osama Bin Laden raid occurred just after I had become USDI and our drone campaigns were still continuing pretty intensely for another year and a half. But new problems emerged like the Syrian civil war, and I started to pay a lot more attention on how I would re-posture defense intelligence for great power competition. So I started focusing a lot more on China and Russia and thinking about what would come ahead and how we could get better at strategic human collection or analysis or using our technology. What our space constellations should look like in 2030. How we would keep up with the quantum computing revolution. Etcetera. And so that -- that marked -- that was different in a sense that, you know, I started shifting from our wars to posturing for this new era.

Andrew Hammond: And can you give us an example of a couple of those things that you've done to shift?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. So one of the things was to really reinvigorate. Reorient the Defense Intelligence Agency from supporting our wars to producing and analyzing intelligence on great powers. And so strengthening their human intelligence capabilities as well as their analytical and others. And then I can't go into details, but I mentioned the satellite architecture and how to defend it. And lots of things that you would need for a war with a great power that, you know, you don't need for the kinds of wars we have been fighting. And so those were just a couple. Building a cyber force as well.

Andrew Hammond: And how would that work with all the people that reported to you? Would you have like a weekly meeting with the director of NSA, NGO, NRO, sorry -- NRO, NGA, they all turn up and you [inaudible] and you kind of -- yeah. Is that how it would work?

Michael Vickers: Yes. So particularly the agency heads, but also the chiefs of army intelligence, naval intelligence, you know, I would meet with them weekly or others on all our strategic initiatives. And then with a lot of new allies intelligence -- joining intelligence operations and others targeting China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, or others that I hadn't focused on as much, you know given the importance of a rising China and a [inaudible] Russia and still trouble in these other regions. But I also continued my White House National Security Council representation. Remember the deputies committee on counter-terrorism and lots of other things. And so I kept that portfolio too. So divided my time. A different emphasis, in a sense. Less on our operational capabilities, but still whatever the wars were, I was still -- that was still a big part of my portfolio or operations. But now with a lot on intelligence capabilities.

Andrew Hammond: And can you just tell us a little bit more about Operation Neptune Sphere, the Osama Bin Laden raid, because I know that you were involved in all of that.

Michael Vickers: Very intimately.

Andrew Hammond: I feel like it would be doing a disservice to our listeners if I didn't get you to talk about it.

Michael Vickers: Sure. So it was one of the great intelligence operations in history. And, you know, after we lost Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001, you know, it took us nine years to find him again. And, you know, there -- it took painstaking work by a lot of people across this decade trying different strategies, but the one that paid off, you know, tracking the courier and how Bin Laden communicated with Al-Qaeda, eventually paid off. So geolocating the courier and then following him back and then starting to pay real attention to that house in Obadabad that we called Obadabad compound one began in late August 2010. And there were only a handful of people in the U.S government who were cleared on this. There were only four people in the Department of Defense that were briefed: Secretary Gates, myself, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and the vice chairman. And that was true for until the end of 2010. And then at the end of 2010 President Obama told us to start thinking about operational options. So I went to CIA to work with them on generating a set for the White House that ranged from B-2 strikes, bomber strikes, that could level the compound with lots of bombs, special operations raids of various kinds, different methods that we would use to get to the target, etcetera. And then to -- whether to do it unilaterally and tell the Pakistanis afterwards or do it bilaterally. And that's pretty much the menu of options that we considered as we went through. And I participated in every meeting at the White House with the deputies, the principals, and the five meetings with President Obama. And as we moved from looking at a B-2 strike or a drone strike to finally settling on the raid, the helicopter raid, that we ended up conducting and, you know, was heavily involved in the operational planning, and then the policy decisions of whether to do it or not do it and when, and it was an incredibly extraordinary time of my life like Afghanistan in the 1980s and like -- we talked about this briefly, but designing the new campaigns to go after Al-Qaeda sanctuary in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and then Yemen and elsewhere. Those were the three big events that -- that, you know -- of historical importance that I really participated in that was part of the motivation for this book.

Andrew Hammond: And just as we get to the end of the interview, Michael, it's just you've spent a long period of time working for -- working for the government in various capacities. And then we just spoke about your time as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. If there's anybody out there listening to this who's in an institution who's in the Pentagon or out at Langley or any other institution of government or an intelligence agency, whenever we're in any institution there's always challenges. There's not enough resources to go around or you're -- you know, you have to sharpen your elbows and, you know, you have to try -- people want to get promoted. So there's lots of different things to bear in mind. So I just wondered is there one thing that you would say to someone out there who wants to navigate the bureaucracy successfully, the organization successfully, so that they can just, A, you know be the best that they can be, and then, B, just serve the country and do what's best for the country? Because so many people lose their way in institutions. As somebody who's like, you know, moved around all these institutions, is there any -- any wisdom that you've taken away from your experience?

Michael Vickers: Yeah. I don't know about wisdom, but you know it's find something you like, but also you're -- you're passionate about, but also you're good at. You know, it's not enough to -- I mean I like sports and baseball and football, and I was pretty good, but nowhere near good enough. And so -- and then, you know, master that, and really try to become the best at, you know -- in your field. And then it's important to broaden. You know, people -- our system tries to in various ways broaden people. You know, so as you grow up as an officer you learn your basic branch skill, and you learn other branches, and then other services, and then you go to the -- from tactical to strategic. But it's more than that, you know. You have to kind of seek it out and continually learn. And -- and then, you know, again this may sound trite, but it's -- particularly as you're given positions of responsibility, and they may be oftentimes when you're more junior. That certainly happened to me in my career, you know, just by luck. But, you know, make a difference. You know, too many people in government, you know, manage rather than really lead or transform. And, you know, so you're given a sacred responsibility by the American people. And if you're given the opportunity to do something good with it, particularly in these operational agencies, do it. You know, don't be risk averse. Don't be -- you know, you're going to -- you're going to make mistakes. And there's things I learned along the way like, you know, as you head these agencies Congress has got to be your partner. You know, like if you -- you're inevitably going to make some mistakes. You know, hopefully you're going to do some really good things, but you know it's better to have them clued in. You know, my -- I had close relationships with a lot of Congressional leaders on the intelligence committees. And I think they valued that I was straight with them on here's what we're trying to do, here's how we're doing it, we need your support. And then, you know, if something goes bad in one area sometimes, they're forgiving because you have a lot of successes. So, you know, it's a mix of things depending on the -- the levels you're at. But I was fortunate in my career. I got to do things mostly I really liked and -- and felt I was pretty good at it. And, you know -- and then everybody says about having mentors, you know. Mentors are important for teaching you things, but they're also important sometimes to just give you -- have your back and give you opportunities. You know, that's -- that was certainly my case. You know, look. I believe you can do this. Go do it. Come back to me with a good answer. And I'll have your back. And Bob Gates did that for me. And you mentioned him earlier, Gust Avrakotos, and a man named Burt Dunn that I dedicated my book to did that to me for Afghanistan. A guy who took me to Granada who passed away, Bill Rooney, did that, and special forces officers did that, and you know that's why I got to do what I did.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. And just finally can you tell our listeners the title of your book?

Michael Vickers: Sure. It's called "By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations, and Strategy." And it's on Amazon and lots of other places.

Andrew Hammond: And that's available in the Spy Museum bookstore because that's where I got my copy.

Michael Vickers: Good.

Andrew Hammond: Right. Thanks ever so much, Michael. This has been a pleasure.

Michael Vickers: Thank you. It's a fantastic interview, Andrew.

Andrew Hammond: Thank you.

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Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast.spymuseum.org or on Twitter at INTL SpyCast. If you go to our page at thecyberWire.com /podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, [inaudible] Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tre Hester, and Jen Eiben.

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