In 1986, Michael G. Vickers was a prodigy for the CIA. Rather than bask in… (Haraz N. Ghanbari/ASSOCIATED…)
In 1986, Michael G. Vickers was a prodigy at the CIA, the chief strategist of the covert program to arm the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. Contrary to all expectations, the effort reversed the course of the war and helped hasten the humiliating defeat of the Red Army.
Rather than bask in the glory of victory, however, Vickers, then 33, stunned his bosses by quitting. Reckoning that he would never land another assignment remotely as important, he applied to graduate school and cast about for a new career.
A quarter-century later, Vickers is back in government, where a mirror version of history is unfolding.
Once again, Afghan rebels are trying to expel a superpower. This time, Vickers holds a senior position at the Pentagon, where for the past four years he has been in charge of Special Operations forces that are hunting Taliban leaders, including some of the same guerrillas he aided in the 1980s. Once again, Vickers’s star is ascending in Washington.
Last month, the Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Vickers to serve as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a pinnacle job that oversees the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and other spy divisions that account for roughly three-quarters of what the United States spends on foreign intelligence-gathering. He is expected to be a key deputy to Leon Panetta, whom Obama nominated this week as defense secretary.
Obama administration officials say Vickers’s career trajectory might not end there. Last year, he was a finalist for the No. 2 job in the CIA, and he is considered a potential contender to return to his old workplace someday as director.
Vickers declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a field accustomed to anonymity and colorless functionaries, supporters describe him as a rare combination of brawn and brains. A former Green Beret, he was once honored as Special Forces officer of the year. He is a veteran of secret operations in Grenada and Central America.
Prior to joining the CIA, he trained to parachute behind Soviet lines with a nuclear device strapped to his body. He is also a marksman, a martial-arts expert and no stranger to bloodshed. In 1976, while he was teaching hand-to-hand combat at West Point, another soldier accidentally plunged a Randall hunting knife into Vickers’s thigh, narrowly missing his femoral artery.
At the same time, his thick glasses and proclivity for 50-cent words betray a considerable intellect, colleagues say. After leaving the CIA, he received an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and he recently earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His dissertation exceeded 1,000 pages.
In “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a movie about the 1980s Afghan campaign based on the book by George Crile, Hollywood portrayed Vickers as a paramilitary genius and brainiac chess player who, like some kind of Russian grandmaster, would calmly engage several different opponents at the same time.
It was a far cry from his roots in Southern California, where Vickers has acknowledged earning C’s in high school and scraping through junior college before finding purpose in the Army.
Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a retired Army officer who taught Vickers at Johns Hopkins and later hired him at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential national security think tank, suggested that Vickers’s poor performance as a youth was no mystery.
“Sometimes,” he said, “gifted people get bored by the offerings mere mortals get.”
Avoiding political sides
In an intensely partisan town, Vickers has survived and advanced by never visibly taking sides. Although he serves at the pleasure of the president as a political appointee, a search of public records turns up no evidence that he has ever donated to a candidate or party.
Vickers had been out of government for two decades when President George W. Bush invited him and three other experts from think tanks and academia to Camp David, Md., in 2006 to consult on his Iraq war strategy. Vickers said Bush’s plan to rescue the war with a “surge” of troops was misguided; he counseled the opposite, urging a partial withdrawal and more training of Iraqi security forces.
Bush stuck to his plan, which was ultimately credited with helping to reduce violence in Iraq. Nonetheless, the president was taken by Vickers. He told then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to hire the self-assured former Green Beret.
“Bush likes men of action,” recalled Eliot A. Cohen, a Johns Hopkins professor and former State Department official who was at Camp David that day. “Even when he didn’t take the advice, it was laid out in an impressive way.”