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Pentagon Intel Chief Steps Aside, Game of Musical Chairs Begins

Defense Chief Ashton Carter will soon be replacing many of the department's top generals, admirals, and civilians.

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The Pentagon’s top civilian intelligence official is stepping down, the first in what will be a series of high-profile Pentagon departures that give Defense Secretary Ashton Carter the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the department’s leadership.

Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, started his career as a Green Beret in the Army and later became a storied CIA operations officer who was the chief strategist behind a covert program in the 1980s to arm Afghan fighters so that they could drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” based on George Crile’s 2003 book of the same name, portrayed Vickers in that role. Vickers himself has acknowledged that the U.S. has since faced many of these same fighters on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

It’s not clear when the defense secretary will select a candidate for Vickers’ job, in part because of the unusually large number of posts that the new defense chief will need to fill in the months ahead.

For the nation’s four-star generals and admirals, a high-stakes game of musical chairs is about to get underway as an array of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepare to move on. In August, its vice chairman, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, will see his term come to an end. And in September, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey are all set to step down from their current posts.

It’s up to Carter to present a list of candidates for these jobs to the president.

As replacements are named, a new round of the military’s top posts will open. For example, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford is seen as one of the favorites for Dempsey’s job. Winnefeld is also believed to be in the running, as is Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who’s currently serving as NATO supreme allied commander in Europe. There are a handful of other four-stars whose names are also rumored for the chairmanship, including Adm. Samuel Locklear, the outgoing commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is also still waiting for Carter to name a new spokesman. Former Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby’s last day was March 6. Carter has made clear that he’d prefer to have a civilian in the job.

With Vickers’s retirement, Carter will need to select someone for one of the country’s top intel jobs.

According to a statement from the Pentagon, Vickers is retiring “to take on new challenges, and spend more time with his family.”

He has been in his current position for four years, making him the longest-serving undersecretary for intel in the Defense Department’s history.

During that time, he weathered an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general into what information he shared with the filmmakers who made “Zero Dark Thirty,” the movie about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Vickers is seen as one of the masterminds behind the hunt for bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda members. An administration official told the New York Times that it was Vickers who helped persuade Robert Gates, then the defense secretary, to go along with the bin Laden raid.

Before becoming the Pentagon’s top civilian intel official, Vickers served as the department’s first assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity and interdependent capabilities from July 2007 to March 2011. In that job, Vickers helped shape the country’s counterterrorism strategy and the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.

“Mike has served four secretaries of defense with distinction, and I have had the privilege of working closely with him on some of the toughest challenges to our national security,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement.

Vickers told Carter and President Barack Obama that his last day will be April 30.

DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen