Atlantic Council

Intelligence in a Dynamic World

Dr. Michael G. Vickers,
Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence

Introduction and Moderator:
Barry Pavel,
Vice President and Director,
Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security,
Atlantic Council

Location: Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.

Date: Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Transcript By
Superior Transcriptions LLC

BARRY PAVEL: Welcome to the Atlantic Council. I’m Barry Pavel. I’m an Atlantic Council vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security here. And thank you so much for joining us for what should be a very interesting and important discussion with Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers.

This event is part of our commander series, which is our long-standing flagship speaker series for senior U.S. and allied defense and military leaders. And I want to thank from the very outset Saab North America for their generous support and strong partnership on this series. I also wanted to welcome numerous Atlantic Council Board directors who are here for this event.

There is a lot on Undersecretary Vickers’ plate, no doubt, and we’ll delve into as much of it as we can today. A U.S.-led coalition is in the midst of a war, along with its Kurdish and Iraqi allies on the ground, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Fighters from that conflict and others inspired by it are currently planning terrorist attacks and, in some cases, carrying them out.

We saw the horrible events in Paris last week, but undoubtedly there will be more. And there’s other threats that are very important for U.S. interests – how to manage a rising China, a belligerent North Korea, competing territorial claims in Asia. Boko Haram and al-Shabab in Africa are threatening security and stability there.

And all of these challenges I’ve listed require someone like Mike Vickers to help the U.S. government track what’s happening and put the various pieces of information together to get a clear picture – which is a very hard thing to do in a dynamic world – and then to help take action against such challenges in various forms and fashions. And we also need to ensure we address the Ukraine crisis today, which is in many ways a new challenge, even though it’s in a place that has featured similar such challenges in the past.

We, at the council, have paid special attention to the role that Mike and intelligence writ large have played in mitigating growing threats and helping our government gain strategic and actionable foresight. It’s a tool that the United States uses heavily, along with its allies and partners to succeed in a world of diffuse power among nation-states, new and growing individual empowerment and geopolitical shifts of power in various forms.

Among other things, we’ve focused here on the Ukraine crisis, as you might expect, and how the U.S. and NATO can respond to a hybrid strategy waged by an adversary that is quite skilled at things like denial, information warfare, energy as a coercive tool and a broad range of other approaches. We’ve also done extensive work here, as many of you may know, on cyber statecraft through our cyber statecraft initiative, looking at NATO’s cyber capabilities, but also the Sony hack and other major issues.

Finally, our Scowcroft Center is working to bring a strategic perspective to global issues by looking at some of the longer-range, larger trends that we see playing out, and then coming back to the present and making recommendations on what to do about those trends in the near term, even though they’re playing out on a long-term basis. And that work includes disruptive technologies, urbanization, demographics and a range of other major global trends.

So, not surprisingly, we here are very much looking forward to hearing from Mike today and the discussion it will stimulate as we work towards a better understanding of the strategic challenges facing us. In fact because there is so much going on, we could not be more thrilled nor more honored to have Mike take time out of his extremely busy schedule to be with us today.

Before I turn it over to our speaker, let me highlight a few things from his very illustrious career. Before becoming the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, he served as the first and only assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities. That was from 2007 to 2011, during which time I worked for him as his principal deputy. From 1973 to 1986 he served in various roles, including as an Army Special Forces noncommissioned officer, as a Special Forces officer and as a CIA operations officer.

He’s had operational and combat experience in Central America, in the Caribbean, in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in South Asia. His operational experience spans covert action, espionage, unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense. During the mid-1980s, he was the principle strategist for the largest covert action program in the CIA’s history. This was the paramilitary operation that drove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan that many of you have read about in history books.

Mike, thank you, from all of us here, for your long service to the country. It is with great pleasure and honor that I welcome Dr. Michael Vickers to the stage. Mike, the floor is yours. And we’re tweeting this event on Twitter. The hashtag is #ACComanders. Thanks very much. (Applause.)

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, thank you, Barry, for that kind introduction. It’s great to see you again, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

So if you look out at America’s next decade, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. You know, our economic and technological innovation, among other things in additive manufacturing, in the internet of things and information technology writ large and biotechnology, and our energy revolution really give one reason to be – to look forward very positively.

But there are lots of storm clouds internationally. And a major source of U.S. advantage, our intelligence advantage, is something that we can’t take for granted, for two reasons I’ll talk about. What I plan to address in my brief remarks before questions is really to talk about the importance of intelligence to our national security, the challenges that it faces over the next decade from two principal areas, geopolitical and technological, and then what we’re doing about it.

So, first, just a bit of preamble: The past decade-plus has really been a golden age for U.S. intelligence. If you look at 2006, what’s become a signature weapon of our war against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups – our armed reconnaissance fleet, our Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft – we had six combat air patrols or orbits in 2006. We’ve increased that by a factor of 11 in the less than a decade that’s transpired since and we now have 65.

In other areas of intelligence, in our ability to collect signals intelligence, we’ve made even more dramatic improvements under the leadership of Keith Alexander, our former director of NSA, and Chris Inglis, our former deputy director. It’s been exponential growth in certain areas in the capability of that system. We’ve expanded our human capabilities. We’ve sharpened our analysis. We’ve enhanced our counterintelligence. And we’ve added new covert action capabilities.

But sustaining that advantage amidst geopolitical challenges and technological change will be something that we need to pay attention to. And I’ll talk to you about that in a minute. So first on the importance of intelligence, the national security. You know, as I said, it’s a major source of U.S. advantage, like undersea warfare, air dominance and in other areas. It’s our first line of defense for warning, particularly given the array of global threats we face.

It informs policy. Every National Security Council meeting we have begins with intelligence briefings. It increasingly drives our operations with precision operations. We talk about intelligence-driven operations now. It provides the president with additional options in between force and diplomacy, sometimes with very, very high leverage. And it helps prevent strategic surprise. Now, it doesn’t eliminate strategic surprise, as we all know, but it helps certainly to prevent it over the long haul.

Now, that advantage is challenged by multiple threats confronting the United States and technological change and diffusion. Now, the flip side of that is that technological change also creates significant opportunities for us. So first, let me talk about the challenges and, before I get into the specifics, make some general observations. As Zbigniew Brzezinski and others have noted, we’re in a time of unprecedented instability in the international system. Most threats that we face – most, but not all – are likely to be enduring threats. You know, unlike the Cold War – we had one big enduring threat and then a series of episodic threats – we have several that are likely to be enduring now.

Most of these threats or challenges to our national security are asymmetric in nature and some of them are cost-imposing. And that is, our adversaries or potential adversaries enjoy favorable cost balances compared to us in the competition. A few of these threats are novel; we’re dealing with them for the first time. And all of them over the past few years have gotten worse in magnitude, which I’ll talk about. So first, let me talk about the expansion of the global jihadist threat. You know, this is something now, it’s risen very dramatically on the minds of our fellow countrymen.

Sunni violent extremist groups are gaining momentum for a number of reasons. One is the diffusion of the global jihad geographically – much wider spread geographically; the expansion of social media that’s enabling the expansion of these groups; the instability across the Middle East and North Africa, wide areas of the Middle East and North Africa; the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the, importantly, competition for leadership of the global jihad between al-Qaida and its affiliates and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is also providing a major source of momentum.

The number of Sunni violent extremist groups, the members who comprise those groups and the safe havens across the world – wide areas of the world that these groups enjoy is now greater than at any time in our history. Second area to talk about, which feeds into this first one, is instability – this historic instability across the broader Middle East and North Africa. And that’s driven by sectarian conflict, political conflicts within a number of these societies, regional rivalries and, of course, wars that we thought we had concluded conclusively that continue on.

In the area of cyberthreats, another near and present danger, they are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity of impact. The range of threat actors, the methods of attacks, the targeted systems and the victims who suffer from these attacks have also been expanding. Threats to our space systems are increasing, both disruptive but also potentially destructive.

In terms of North Korea and Iran and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, they continue. North Korean in particular, restarting its facility in Yongbyon and developing the size and sophistication of its missile forces, including a road-mobile, intercontinental ballistic missile that it has under development.

Iranian capabilities, particularly in the conventional area but also in unconventional, have significantly increased over the past decade as well. Russia’s challenge to the European order through proxy war, through information warfare aimed against the West and development of advanced systems, including intermediate-range missiles also pose a challenge.

And then, finally, what may be the great event of the 21st century, the continued rise of China. And it’s had remarkable economic growth over the past three decades, also, you know, pose a challenge as economic power is converted into military power. Now, I should emphasize, I have personally benefited from strategic cooperation, in my career, with China. And Chinese leadership certainly has announced its intention for a new type of great power relations. And we have lots of dialogue with them at the top levels of our government.

The second area I want to talk about that poses a challenge to us, besides the geopolitical challenge, is really in the area of technological change and diffusion. And I’m just going to focus on a few here with particular relevance to intelligence. But there are many others that could have an impact down the road. So the first is the diffusion and wide availability now of commercial imagery. So advantages that the U.S. had, that gap has been narrowed significantly. There are great benefits, of course, that come from this, but also challenges.

The second area is the development of new encryption methods that are widely available and diffusing and also operational security practices that go with this that make our intelligence collection problem more challenging. And then, in the information environment, the continued development of biometrics, the digital dust that we all leave around as we live our lives, including intelligence officers, the internet of things – the wiring of everything, basically – and advances of – in computing power pose both challenges to us and our operations, as well as significant opportunities.

So now I’d like to conclude a little bit with talking about what I believe is the most significant transformation of the defense intelligence enterprise we’ve undertaken in several decades, and how we’re trying to posture future American leaders with capabilities to deal with this broad array of challenges. This is something that I hope will be one of the hallmarks of my tenure as undersecretary of defense for intelligence. And I really have this binned into five big areas.

The first is global coverage. And that provides the backbone of our intelligence system. We’ve made significant improvements in our overhead architecture in the past decade. There are even bigger changes to come in the next decade. I can’t go into the details, but it’ll provide much greater persistence that we have today, much greater integration in terms of a system of systems, and much greater resiliency, all important attributes given the importance of our space systems and the threats to them.

Second area that we’re working on, which arrays with these challenges, is making sure we continue our investment in advanced cryptanalytic systems. And then a third area for global coverage is – has been the strengthening of our human intelligence – our strategic human intelligence capabilities. Department of Defense has invested a lot in the past couple decades on our tactical and operational human capabilities. And now we’re reforming our strategic capabilities that’s distributed around the globe.

The second area that we’ve been working on, in part with the larger Department of Defense, is projecting power into denied areas, or what we call anti-access/area-denial environments, our most significant power projections challenge. On one level, this is not something new. If you go back to U-2s and the advent of satellites, it’s just more modern forms of it. But in addition to systems, it’s integration between various systems and the development of new processes in terms of being able to fight in that environment, to find, fix and then finish adversary systems.

We are not only sustaining, but expanding the capabilities of our counterterrorism capabilities, extending the range of a number of our systems while we continue to improve the sensors that give us high fidelity targeting capabilities and multiple intelligence systems. We’ve also made some recent decisions to further expand our fleet size in this area across the department.

Over the past couple years, we’ve built – we’re about two-thirds of the way done with this – cyber mission forces to defend the nation against a major cyber attack, to support the operations of our combatant commanders, and then to defend DOD’s networks. We still have some work to do in this area in terms of building the intelligence infrastructure to support these operational forces, but we’re fairly well-along in that area.

And then the final area, given the range of insider threats we’ve had, is to modernize our security system through something called continuous evaluation. This is a change in the way we do investigations. It will take some years to implement. But if you think of, like, credit checks, where you’re constantly getting those updated, it’s the same basic logic to that. And then we’re strengthening our insider threat systems within the department and across the IC.

So those five areas really cover the major elements of defense intel transformation. And I’d be happy to follow up on questions in those areas. The intent of all this is not just to deal with the challenges that we face and to make sure our – we sustain our intelligence advantage for our policymakers and operators decades into the future, but to also inform and enable some of the new strategic and operational approaches that will be required to deal with these challenges.

So with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.

All right. I guess I’ll – always good to have a sticky tells you where to sit, so.

MR. PAVEL: We wanted to make sure you knew what – where to go.

MR. VICKERS: Yeah, yeah. All right.

MR. PAVEL: Well, thanks very much, Mike, for really a broad tour of the – of the horizon, so to speak, of a range of challenges. I want to sort of go back to your very first point, that you’re optimistic but you see storm clouds looming. Could you give us a sense for – first, which storm clouds most worry you – and I think you covered some of them, but what’s really the toughest potential near-term and long-term challenge?

And then, what – which of the storm clouds do you think are less appreciated outside of government? In other words, you know, for example, we’ve heard concerns about the stability of countries like Jordan while – whereas we’re aware of the stability of countries like Libya and Syria. But sort of what should we be thinking about as the next set of headlines that perhaps those who are listening, those in the government can then devote some additional attention to?

MR. VICKERS: So I think the big challenge we face is really, you know, in the aggregation of challenges. It’s not that any one challenge is so daunting, it’s that there’s six of them that are diverse, they’re all significant, they’re like to be enduring, they have highly asymmetric qualities to them. As I said, some of them, like cyber, are rather novel and we’re just developing the capabilities we need to deal with it. And so that’s the thing that over the next decade – certainly the next few years, poses the challenge for us. I think Director Clapper has talked about this a fair amount that, you know, in our careers we’ve never seen such an array of challenges confronting our senior policy makers.

The – you know, the resilience of the global jihadist threat and expansion into new areas, and the expansion of safe havens because of fragile states, has been a surprise on some level, if you look back several years. And terrorism plus cyber are our most immediate threats. But then the other challenges to the world order – great power rivalry, et cetera – are both near and potentially longer-term greater challenges as well. And you know, so it’s really the confluence of all those threats that makes it so significant, is you have to deal in multiple regions with multiple very varied threats.

MR. PAVEL: So is there – you’re somewhat suggesting a capacity problem, or at least a complexity problem, in dealing with the volume of threats but also trying to discern their – some of their interlinkages. Is that a question that you struggle with as well?

MR. VICKERS: Yes, but I think it’s also the right kind of capacity, in a sense, to deal with these threats, much as the challenge that we faced after 9/11. You know, there are certain areas where we’re very, very strong, but we’re not challenged in those areas. And so these challenges are focusing on areas where, you know, in some senses the solution may be intelligence and partners and special operations forces.

In other cases, it may be, you know, economic innovation that really is the key to the long-term challenge. And so it’s not just a capacity question of the size of, you know, the American military, for example – or a component of the American military. It’s a pretty broad-based set of challenges.

MR. PAVEL: Thanks. I’ll ask a couple more questions and then I’ll be looking towards the audience for questions from you as well.

An issue that’s really high on the minds here at the Atlantic Council is Russia and the Ukraine crisis. And I know you’ve spent quite a bit of time on this, so we would really welcome your insights on, first, how durable is this challenge? How much pressure is Putin under from depressed global energy prices, on which the Russian economy relies very, very heavily? What might be the best tools we could use to strengthen Ukraine? What are the keys to this – to ultimately resolving this crisis? And just what’s your best sense of some of the key aspects of it that this audience should be aware of, from all the work that you do on this?

MR. VICKERS: Well, I think that, you know, the challenge to Ukraine has been multifaceted, both economic and energy disruption, proxy war, transfer of equipment, introduction of forces. And the solutions to it require, first and foremost, Western solidarity and consequences for these actions, but also addressing each of those challenges – in building state capacity, keeping the economy and particularly critical infrastructure and energy at appropriate levels. And so the administration has been focused on each of those areas to deal with the crisis.

MR. PAVEL: How worried are you in the near term? Some have posited that, with so much economic pressure on Putin and his core base from the Russian economic decline – how worried are you that President Putin will try to lash out to distract his base, to further secure his position, in additional military adventures in places like Transnistria, in the Black Sea, in the Baltics? Sort of – is this a near-term sort of high priority concern that you’re worried about in terms of the next 12 to 24 months?

MR. VICKERS: Well, you know, powers can always do unpredictable things. I think President Putin certainly has had a strategic vision of strengthening Russian power and asserting influence over countries on his periphery. And – but I also think he’s a pragmatist who, you know, wants satisfactory economic relations with the West as well. And as you said, there’s significant economic pressure as well. So we’ll hope for the best.

MR. PAVEL: Yeah, we’re all hoping. We’re – there’s also a lot of worry about some of these Russian military aircraft, sort of near-misses with civilian airliners in the North Sea. And some of us worry that we’re sort of one accident away from this crisis deepening very, very significantly and taking on an even greater intensity.

MR. VICKERS: Sure. Well, you know, that activity is up a lot. And you know, we’ve had established rules of the road in air and maritime, you know, going back well into the Cold War. Some of those norms have atrophied a bit, but it’s – you know, it’s important to observe them, for the reasons you suggested.

MR. PAVEL: One last set of questions on ISIS, and then we’ll go to the audience. This is a new manifestation of a – of at least a decade, it not more, long type of terrorist extremist threat – in some ways, another evolution and expansion. They’re very, very good at social media, inspiration of recruits in far-flung countries. Could you just give us a little bit of your sense of the nature of this challenge, how it’s come about, how do you think it might go in the – in the near term?

MR. VICKERS: Well, both al-Qaida core and its affiliates and ISIL, as we call them, or ISIS, certainly don’t lack for global ambition in overturning the global order. ISIL in particular has benefited fairly dramatically from the civil war and safe haven that’s been provided in Syria, particularly in northeastern Syria, and then its expansion into western Iraq and then northern Iraq and a lot of the equipment that it’s been able to capture. More intangibly, it’s benefited from its perception of success and, as you said, its exploitation of social media that has enabled its reach to be far more global than otherwise would be.

MR. PAVEL: Thanks very much.

Now, let’s throw it open to the audience. How about in the second row here? If when you ask your question you could identify yourself, that would be helpful.

Q: Sure. Thanks, Barry. Barbara Slavin. I’m a senior fellow here at the Atlantic Council.

Two questions. First, it appears that the Houthi have taken over much of Yemen. Can the United States work with this group at all, or does their anti-Americanism trump their hostility toward al-Qaida?

And then, if I may, there have been reports that the Turks have actually been providing some weaponry to al-Qaida-related groups in Syria. What is our relationship – intel relationship like with the Turks these days, as we try to deal with the threat of the Islamic State? Thank you.

MR. VICKERS: So the Houthi certainly have exercised significant influence in Yemen since September. And it’s expanded rather significantly in recent days. I don’t know that their aim yet is to take over the state as much as it is to exercise influence and refashion it in a way that they think is more aligned with their interests. The leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, made a speech last night in which he outlined several of those conditions.

The – you know, as you mentioned, the Houthis are anti-al-Qaida. And we’ve been able to continue some of our counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida in the past several months. But the situation in Yemen is something we’re monitoring very closely.

On the Turkish side, we have a very close intelligence relationship with the Turks. I have a personal relationship with the head of Turkish intelligence. You know, and we cooperation on a number of – a number of areas.

MR. PAVEL: Yes, if we could bring the microphone up here to the second row.

Q: Thank you very much. Sydney Freedberg, Breaking Defense.

Mr. Secretary, you mentioned your, you know, overwhelming multitasking of multiple threats, from great powers to cyber powers. We already see some convergence of these. I mean, Russia, for example, in Estonia and since has been aggressively operating in cyberspace. The Chinese are rather infamous as well. Even ISIS is operating in social media – online with a great deal of savvy. And then, you know, China’s – and Russia are building up pipelines. There’s potential, you know, economic and even geopolitical axis there. What is the potential, the danger of some of these big six cross-pollinating to be more than the sum of their parts?

MR. VICKERS: Well, sure. I mean, cyber is a – you know, a tool for intelligence collection. It is also – you know, has destructive capabilities as well. It’s a – it’s a major new capability that has emerged on the scene. And a number of state actors – you could add Iran and North Korea with Sony Pictures to that list – are resorting to cyberoperations as – of one kind or another. Non-state actors do as well, with somewhat less sophistication.

But that’s why I mentioned in the past just couple years we’ve seen the number of actors, the number of attacks, the range of attacks, the range of operations expand rather significantly. And so that’s why, with terrorism, it is our, you know, most immediate threat.

MR. PAVEL: Yes, in the back row. Eric Schmitt.

Q: Eric Schmitt with The New York Times. Thanks for doing this Dr. Vickers.

Can you explain to us what you all have learned since the attacks in France, just about the degree to which cells have been formed here, particularly from militants returning from Syria, particularly the Belgian plot? Anything – any more light you can shed on that and the danger it poses, and what you’ve learned in particular?

MR. VICKERS: Yeah. So I think it highlights a number of factors that I talked about, you know, in characterizing the expansion of the global jihad.

One, that you have multiple groups sponsoring attacks; that competition for leadership of the global jihad, and, you know, attacks in the West in particular are high on their list and even increasing in priority. So you had, in the Paris attacks, one from AQAP and travel to Yemen, and the other with ISIL; and then the Belgium attacks, yet another manifestation.

The second thing I think you see is the – you know, like a lot of terrorism operations, some of these things take time to germinate. There’s a lag between the conception of the operation and its execution that may be dormant for a while, doesn’t mean it goes away.

And the third, again, is the influence of communications and then – and social media and then, you know, the impact of the Syrian civil war as a magnet for global jihad as well.

So I think it has all those characteristics. And I think it – you know, it’s why there’s heightened risk now of continued attacks, you know, from this proliferation of groups.

MR. PAVEL: Yes, right here in the middle.

Q: Good morning. Thank you for being here. Christine Vargas from Avascent.

Could you comment on the intelligence relationships between us and Iran right now, in special regards to operations in Iraq? And all I’m looking for is, is this helping things in terms of the game of telephone we’re playing through the Iraqis to the Iranians to make sure when we, you know, operate we don’t cause any problems, when they operate they don’t cause any problems for us? Thank you so much.

MR. VICKERS: Yeah, I wouldn’t characterize that as an intelligence relationship. But, you know, we of course with a broad coalition are assisting the Iraqi government. The Iranians are also assisting the Iraqi government in different ways. But that’s how I’d characterize it.

MR. PAVEL: Yes, the gentleman in the back.

Q: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. Jason Miller, Federal News Radio.

You talked about the workforce several times, and the transformation that’s happening within the intelligence community, specifically the defense one. Can you talk a little about – more about the impact on the workforce, and then relate that back to the continuous evaluation insider threat? Where do you see that going and when will it be, if you will, ready to go or initial operating capability, whatever you want to call it?

MR. VICKERS: Well, a change in our security system is something, you know, that we’re looking to implement government-wide. So it involves, you know, Office of Personnel Management, Office of Management and Budget, the Director of National Intelligence, as well as the Department of Defense and multiple agencies. And so if we do – we’ve had some pilot programs. We’re expanding in this area. If we do transform our system, you know, it will take some time. It’s a – it’s a several-year process to do that. And, you know, we’ll supplement existing systems as well.

On the broader workforce question, one of the things that we have really tried to do – you know, I talked about strengthening HUMINT but, you know, technology is very important to us in the intelligence business, but people – you know, it sounds like a cliché, but people are really our most critical resource. And so we’ve invested a lot in expanded training systems for our analysts, for the suite of capabilities that enhance our collectors. The human intelligence collection game requires a lot more, and it’s strongly enabled by, a lot of back-office support that we didn’t have as much of in my day, but it’s very powerful today.

And so we’re fleshing out those teams and making sure we have, you know, very adequate training and career paths for these people – both for our uniformed people who work in this area in the department, a number of our services have established new programs, as well as our civilian workforce. I want to give a particular shout out to the Defense Intelligence Agency which has, you know, revamped its analytical training program and – you know, and others.

MR. PAVEL: All right. Let’s go to question over there.

Q: Hey, Joe Marks from Politico.

In the – the director of operational test and evaluation put out a report yesterday that concluded that across the combatant command, cyber systems are generally still – systems are still generally vulnerable to an adversary’s cyberattack and that the pivot to cyber resilience, so continuing to operate during a successful cyberattack, is not where it ought to be. Are we behind the curve in cyber-resilience and what’s being done to change that?

MR. VICKERS: You know, so as I said, the – cyber poses a number of challenges as well as opportunities for us. Both the intelligence community and the Department of Defense are really moving to new information technology systems, much like the private sector is, in terms of cloud-based system.

So in the IC there’s a system called ICITE, Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise. And the department has a nested and corresponding system called the Joint Information Environment that will take advantage. So we are in the process of transitioning to these systems that will provide much, much better security. But, you know, it takes time.

MR. PAVEL: Right here in the front – second row.

Q: Hi. My name is Tara McKelvey. I work for the BBC.

And I’m wondering – you talked about China. I wanted to know if you can tell me about the president’s visit to India and what are some of the challenges and opportunities of that relationship with India.

MR. VICKERS: Well, it’s a little – a little out of my area but, you know, strategic engagement with India is something that has been pursued across multiple administrations. I mean, I remember it – I think back in the Clinton administration there was significant – and then continued with President Bush and now President Obama. And, you know, where our interests were, you know, aligned to varying degrees in the Cold War, they’re dramatically more aligned now. And that long-term strategic relationship has continued to advance. And the president’s visit, I think, underscores the importance of that.

MR. PAVEL: Great. Why don’t we take questions right here.

Q: Hi. Greg Miller with The Washington Post.

Dr. Vickers, can you return to Yemen. And I just wonder if you could give us an assessment of al-Qaida’s franchise there and its capabilities. You mentioned its connection to the plot in Paris, but it seemed like a dated connection. Did you – have you seen any indication that there was any more ongoing relationship there and what is that group capable of now?

MR. VICKERS: So I’ll address the latter part of your question. The al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as it’s known – been known for several years, is probably the most dangerous of al-Qaida’s organizations in terms of sophistication of its technology and its aim – intent to launch sophisticated attacks. One of the – al-Qaida has generally had a penchant for very, very dramatic attacks, going back a couple decades.

And so what is novel about the Paris attack is that, you know, it’s more the storm tactics that other groups have used that al-Qaida’s certainly capable of but has eschewed up to this point. And so that adds – you know, that essentially –

MR. PAVEL: Lowers the bar, huh?

MR. VICKERS: Lowers the bar, but makes the prospect of those kinds of attacks more likely. You know, so they remain a very, very dangerous group.

MR. PAVEL: Boko Haram is also in the news, and certainly presenting a very significant threat to Nigeria. Is that also a – sort of a threat that should be on the United States’ radar screen?

MR. VICKERS: Yes, because of their – you know, like ISIL, one, the success that they’ve had; two the – you know, the horrific violence that they undertake. I mean, at this stage they’re more of a regional threat, but it’s something if you – you know, in some respects they look like ISIL two years ago. And so how fast their trajectory could go up, you know, is something we’re paying a lot of attention to. But certainly in their area they’re wreaking a lot of destruction.

MR. PAVEL: And so are you – do you have cooperation with counterparts in that region as well, to help – to help get a sense for that threat?

MR. VICKERS: Yes, well, our – you know, through, you know, our State Department and intelligence colleagues, but also our U.S. Africa Command, you know, that Carter Ham headed until recently and Dave Rodriguez does now, is pretty heavily engaged.

MR. PAVEL: OK. Yes, right here.

Q: Thank you. Steve Hirsch. I’m a freelance journalist.

You mentioned the rise of China as something that the IC is watching. I’m wondering if you can say whether the rise of China presents China itself as a target or if this is more of a – sort of a regional target, other parts of Asia that become more important because of the rise of China? In other words, is it just China or is it China and its impact on, say, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia – the entire area as an intelligence target, if you can say?

MR. VICKERS: Well, I mean, the – you know, the dynamics of the East Asian region is something we pay a lot of attention to. You know, China’s rise is, you know, something – it’s been very impressive – and it’s something in sort of a class by itself in terms of – and certainly projections going forward. But in terms of interactions, you know, in any region, that’s something the IC naturally pays a lot of attention to, and does in this case as well.

Q: Does China’s rise increase the attention to the rest of the region?


Q: OK, thank you.

MR. PAVEL: Yes, right here in the middle.

Q: Yeah. Hi, sir. James Drew from

You just had the Air Force respond to the shortage of Predator and Reaper pilots. Is the intelligence community asking too much of that force? And are you wanting to see them get more resources? I think you hinted towards it but, you know, are you asking too much of them? And what are you going to get to help them sustain that?

MR. VICKERS: Well, I was very pleased by the swift and decisive actions the Air Force leadership has taken recently. I mean, that force has been instrumental in our successes in a number of counterterrorism campaigns. And so it’s a critical capability for the nation, you know, and certainly something we have to sustain at an appropriate level, given how employed it’s been.

But, you know, that heavy rate of employment and rapid growth and other pressures on the Air Force has put a lot of stain on that force as well – you know, unique strain, compared to other elements of the force. So that’s what these initiatives are designed to address. It’s critically important.

MR. PAVEL: And how worried are you about other countries leapfrogging or matching the U.S. in terms of the use of weaponized unmanned systems? But also increasingly – we spend quite a bit of time on this at the Atlantic Council, on what we call individual empowerment. And that is anyone – any individual can pretty much build a weaponized drone for a very small amount of money. There’s also increasing capabilities to program swarms of drones in operation military or terrorist concepts or tactics. Is that something that you’re – you think we’re right to start taking a look at and taking heed and preparing our military and our society for these types of tactics?

MR. VICKERS: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, autonomous systems or semi-autonomous systems or remote systems are a broad trend in warfare in various dimensions, you know, in different degrees. And a number of nations around the world are pursuing technologies in these areas, again, across warfare dimensions.

You know, the U.S. has a considerable advantage and lead in this area. But it’s – you know, it’s something others have taken notice of as well. And so it’s a pretty wide range of actors that are actually pursuing this. It’s not – you know, it’s not like nuclear weapons or something that, you know, belongs to a handful of states. This is something that’s proliferating more widely and, as you said, at the smaller variety of them, even the non-state actors.


Q: Good morning. Michael Quigley. Senior fellow for national security at Human Rights First.

Sir, you mentioned a lot of the threats as being asymmetric. And you talked about cyber, particularly from an offensive – the denial abilities, the destructive abilities and so forth. Do we see non-state actors developing the sophistication of states in the area of espionage – and the component that cyber would offer them – do we see them actively targeting for espionage purposes in a more traditional or classical sense?

MR. VICKERS: No. I mean, you know, do they have cyber ambitions and do they do, like, limited disruption operations? Yes. This is an area that’s still, though, you know, where states have advantages in terms of the capabilities they can bring to bear. Now, that said, a fairly wide range of states are able to, you know, engage in operations in this area. It’s not just limited to, you know, the top two or three. And the number are – you know, is growing.

But it’s more of a – more of a state competition right now than non-state. You know, a lot of things empower individuals and a lot of technologies, and therefore terrorists. It’s more the communications capabilities, social media that really enables terrorists, less so cyber.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Otto Kreisher with Seapower Magazine.

Your office is one of several attempts over the last decade or so to try to get some kind of unity to the U.S. intelligence, you know, community. You know, we – you know, the defense – you know, national intelligence czar and that sort of thing. And there still seems to be, you know, some diffusion of the effort. You know, could you – could you talk about that?

You know, are we wasting energy and effort by, you know, both the military, you know, CIA and all the other people who are in the intelligence field? And there’s been concern stated recently about CIA’s, you know, paramilitary operations. Should they be more focused on intelligence rather than, you know, killing people and breaking things, which used to be, you know, special ops business?

MR. VICKERS: Yeah. So I think the reforms of the past decade in terms of the creation of the DNI and, you know, little – I sound a little parochial about this – but the creation of my office, I’m the third USDI, have done a lot to strengthen intelligence management across the IC and within the Department of Defense. Certainly within the Department of Defense there was nothing comparable to this across the defense intelligence enterprise. And I think it’s produced, you know, very good results.

Director Clapper has made it a signature of his tenure to foster much greater intelligence integration, both within his office, but also across the IC. And that level of integration among our agencies – you know, if you look at the bin Laden raid, for example, you know, it’s – an intense collaboration between CIA, NGA and NSA made that possible. And that’s the norm now.

Director Clapper and I have integrated our – and we have integrated processes in terms of the national intelligence program and the various forms of military intelligence program and battle-space awareness and other things that constitute defense intelligence, to make sure that we’re rationalizing our investments across the intelligence enterprise. We issue joint guidance to all IC elements together every year. It’s called consolidated intel guidance. And so I think it’s generally produced significant reforms.

And then, you know, the American taxpayer gets an extraordinary return on investment from the Central Intelligence Agency. And so I’ll leave it at that, but a lot of the things they do they do extraordinarily well. And we’re happy to have them as a member of the national security team.

MR. PAVEL: (Chuckles.) OK. Yes, in the back.

Q: Hi. Mike Pillsbury. Hudson Institute.

I have a question that’s a little vague. It’s got some praise wrapped into it. Andy Marshall’s been gone from the building now about two weeks. And I detect a reform that you’re receiving a lot of credit for. I don’t know what to call it exactly. Over 30 years, the intelligence community seemed to have a taboo that no product could compare the United States with a foreign power or strength.

But slowly that’s been eroded and now analysts seem to be more able to say: We can do this, we can do that. This is what the foreign power does. Is there a name for this? It’s kind of like net assessment methods are now allowed to be part of the intelligence community’s work, as opposed to 30 years ago when it was really taboo to have the word American side or America capabilities in a report?

MR. VICKERS: Yeah. So, no, I don’t think I deserve the credit for this. But I believe what you’re referring to is our analysts spend more time now – and policymakers ask them to, on what is described as opportunity analysis.

It’s not just, you know, tell me what’s going on about this international problem, but what opportunities for the United States to deal effectively with it or, you know, what otherwise are storm clouds? What should you pay attention to? That’s hard work to do, to be honest. It’s not just a reluctance to offer advice. And there are certain lines you don’t want to go beyond. But sometimes, it’s very, very valuable.

The function of net assessment more broadly, which you know very well, is a – more of a defense and whole-of-government enterprise that’s very important, but then you can take an even much broader look at – systematic look at competing strategies and capabilities and others. And, again, it’s very hard work to do, but when it’s done right it really, really pays off. So two different things, basically: what analysts now do to help in this area and the movement they’ve made, and then the traditional discipline of net assessment.

MR. PAVEL: Excellent. We’ve time for a couple more questions and I think there’s two more in the far corner there, if we can get a microphone over to them.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Wes Bruer with CNN.

We’ve seen a lot of counterterrorism operations in Europe following the Paris attacks. It seems to be reactionary. Do you see a need for more intelligence sharing among European nations and with the U.S.?

MR. VICKERS: Well, we already share a lot. And, yes, they’re – but the global intelligence network, counterterrorism network is one of our critical assets in dealing with this transnational problem. And so – and the United States really plays a central role in this, as really the – kind of the global orchestrator of this network in terms of being able to pass appropriate intelligence to partners across regions as some of these threats have, you know, multiregional connections.

I don’t want to go too much further than that, but you know, it’s a – it’s a critical component of our defenses. You know, a lot of the plots that never get to the execution stage are – or certainly in areas where it’s only means of really dealing with this – intelligence and then police action. You know, this is key to our ability to disrupt a lot of terrorist plots. It has been over the last decade and will continue to be critically important going forward.

MR. PAVEL: And we have time for one last question in the back.

Q: Hi, Dr. Vickers. Mark Mazzetti with The New York Times.

A question about Russia: I’m wondering whether the falling oil prices and the pain that they’re feeling from the oil prices in your mind is causing them to rethink anything strategically, either in terms of what they’re doing in the Middle East and Ukraine – I guess specifically on the Middle East and what – you know, long term – or even short term, what their – what it’s causing them to do differently.

MR. VICKERS: Well, I think the combination of sanctions, oil prices, but also the very different investment climate should focus Russian leadership on, you know, where its long-term interests lie. You know, certainly, you know, all countries – Russia, no exception – benefits from integration into the global economy.

So falling oil prices are a manifestation of this, and then, you know, obviously, you know, in any country the size of its foreign exchange reserves and how long that can sustain current spending. But the longer-term threat I really think is ostracization from the West and the impact on the economy. You know, even if oil prices rebound, you know, it’s that investment climate that really matters, and integration with other economies.

MR. PAVEL: Well, unfortunately we’re out of time. Please join me in thanking Undersecretary Vickers. (Applause.)