Michael G. Vickers, once a Green Beret and a C.I.A. operative, helped persuade a cautious Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, to go along with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
Published: September 04, 2011
WASHINGTON – Every day, Michael G. Vickers gets an update on how many in Al Qaeda’s senior leadership the United States has removed from the battlefield, and lately there has been much to report. Al Qaeda’s No. 2 died in a C.I.A. drone strike late last month, another senior commander was taken out in June, and the Navy Seals made history when they dispatched Osama bin Laden in May.
“I just want to kill those guys,” Mr. Vickers likes to say in meetings at the Pentagon, with a grin.
Mr. Vickers’s preoccupation – “my life,” he says – is dismantling Al Qaeda. Underneath an owlish exterior, he is an ex-Green Beret and former C.I.A. operative with an exotic past. His title is under secretary of defense for intelligence, and he has risen to become one of the top counterterrorism officials in Washington.
As covert American wars – in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – continue in the second decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, so will the questions of legality, morality and risk that go along with them.
Mr. Vickers, a top adviser to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta who has helped shape American military and intelligence policy for three decades, knows the perils well. He bears some responsibility for the unintended consequences of helping arm the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, only to have them turn their weapons against United States troops years later.
In recent months, it was Mr. Vickers, an administration official said, who helped persuade a cautious Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, to go along with the Bin Laden raid. It was Mr. Vickers who was a driver behind two other covert American military operations, in Syria and Pakistan, which killed more than two dozen militants in late 2008. It was Mr. Vickers who made sure that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal had enough drones at his disposal when he ran the military’s Special Operations Command, which staged secret raids in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We had one Predator available to us, and we built an entire fleet of them,” General McChrystal, now retired, said in a recent interview. “He was a major player.”
Mostly unknown outside of Washington, Mr. Vickers, 58, had a moment of fame in the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” based on the book by George Crile. Mr. Vickers was portrayed as a chess-playing nerd from the 1980s C.I.A. who armed the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, still the largest covert operation in the agency’s history.
Although the chess was artistic license (Mr. Vickers recently spent his spare time finishing what his academic adviser, Eliot A. Cohen, calls a 1,000-plus page “cinderblock of a dissertation” for a doctorate), the rest is, for better or for worse, accurate. During the Reagan administration, Mr. Vickers funneled weapons to, among others, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, both now morphed into Afghan insurgent leaders who are fighting the United States.
“Yes, most of my colleagues from those days are now on the dark side,” Mr. Vickers acknowledged in a recent interview in his antiseptic office. “We were well aware that they weren’t the ideal allies.” Nonetheless, he said, “You make a deal with the devil to defeat another devil.”
The devil these days is Al Qaeda, and Mr. Vickers is more cautious than Mr. Panetta in declaring it on the verge of collapse. (The defense secretary said in July that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.”) In Mr. Vickers’s assessment, there are perhaps four important Qaeda leaders left in Pakistan, and 10 to 20 leaders over all in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Even if the United States kills them all in drone strikes, Mr. Vickers said, “You still have Al Qaeda, the idea.”
“You’re never going to eradicate that, but you want to take away their ability to be this global threat,” he said. “So yes, it is possible. It will take time.”
Mr. Vickers, despite his zeal for hunting terrorists, looks like a buttoned-up tax lawyer, or at least someone unlikely to know a Stinger missile from a Kalashnikov, two weapons he lavished upon the mujahedeen.
Mr. Vickers’s younger brother, Richard, a California health care administrator, said, “Whenever I would introduce him to my friends, they all said he was so mild-mannered, they thought he worked in a library or something.”
But in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Mr. Crile calls Mr. Vickers a romantic at heart, a man transfixed by James Bond movies who dreamed (along with becoming a football or baseball star) of espionage. “It was pretty easy to see it coming, he was interested in all that spy stuff,” Richard Vickers said. The brothers grew up in Hollywood, where their father worked as a master carpenter on movie sets for 20th Century Fox.
Mr. Vickers went to Hollywood High School, failed to make it in professional sports and then signed up for the Green Berets in 1973, at the age of 19. “It sounded cool,” he said.
Over the next 10 years, he learned how to parachute with a small, and simulated, nuclear device strapped to his waist, he submerged himself in the study of Soviet weapons and he helped with two hostage rescues in Honduras. In 1983, he joined a C.I.A. paramilitary unit and was pinned down that same year during the American invasion of Grenada. He was sent to Lebanon to collect intelligence after the United States Marine barracks was blown up in Beirut in 1983 and soon began arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
Mr. Vickers left the C.I.A. in 1986 and spent 20 years in Washington research organizations and academia (he has a master’s degree from the Wharton School and just got his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies). In 2006 he impressed then-President George W. Bush when he was invited to a meeting on Iraq. By the next year Mr. Vickers was working for Mr. Gates as a top adviser on counterterrorism at the Pentagon. President Obama promoted Mr. Vickers to his current job, and the Senate confirmed him in March.
Mr. Vickers was one of a handful of people who worked with Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, now the head of Special Operations Command, on the Bin Laden raid this year. “He was the one person in the room who really understood both sides of the business,” said Michael J. Morell, the deputy C.I.A. director at the time of the May raid and now the agency’s acting director, until David H. Petraeus is sworn into the top job this week. “There was an intelligence side to this and a military operational side.”
Mr. Vickers’s contribution was overseeing the Pentagon’s collection of intelligence in Pakistan in the months before Bin Laden was killed and working with Admiral McRaven and others on options for the raid. Mr. Vickers favored what eventually happened, sending a Navy Seal team into Bin Laden’s compound. A month before the operation, he went with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michele A. Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, to make the argument to a skeptical Mr. Gates that the raid was not too risky. Mr. Gates eventually supported it along with all other top officials.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary at the time, said in an interview that the meeting was “significant” but that it was incorrect to say it convinced Mr. Gates to support the raid. Nonetheless, Mr. Morrell said, getting Bin Laden in Pakistan was Mr. Vickers’s “baby,” and “more than anybody else in the department, he drove this issue.”
Mr. Vickers, who has been mentioned as a possible C.I.A. director someday, is in the meantime focused on the rest of Al Qaeda. Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, he is not predicting its imminent demise. “They’re still very dangerous,” he said.