At the height of the Cold War, CIA agent Michael Vickers’ guerrilla war training included preparing to parachute into enemy territory with a small nuclear weapon strapped to his leg.
In the 1980s, he equipped rebel fighters in the Afghan mountains with stinger missiles to shoot down Russian helicopters. A decade later he helped dismantle al Qaeda and played a major role in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
On Saturday night, all Mr. Vickers had to do was raise a martini glass.
He also held back a few tears, as the nation’s most prestigious association of clandestine services — The OSS Society — gathered to honor his distinguished career in addition to remembering thousands of their comrades who died in service to America.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a World War II espionage unit, gave birth to America’s modern intelligence community and in its heyday deployed more than 13,000 operatives, a third of them women, including Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich and chef Julia Child — in addition to four future CIA directors.
Considered Washington’s most secretive black tie affair, Saturday night’s OSS gala blended survivors of the unit sharing living history about death-defying missions, sobering moments about sacrifice at war and a raucous celebration of triumph and survival — replete with accompanying toasts.
Mr. Vickers won the society’s highest honor, the Donovan Award, named for OSS founder Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan — joining past recipients, including the Earl Mountbatten of Myanmar, the astronauts of Apollo 11, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, President George H.W. Bush and multiple CIA directors.
The brains behind launching the OSS, Gen. Donovan is a legendary figure not only to the American intelligence community but among spies the world around. He nicknamed the unit “the glorious amateurs” and often described OSS personnel as performing “some of the bravest acts of the war.”
On the lobby wall honoring fallen officers at CIA headquarters in Virginia, OSS personnel are represented and the unit is widely remembered for not only playing a major role in the creation of the CIA but also in the formation of the Army Green Berets and Navy Seals.
Mr. Donovan’s statue also stands outside CIA headquarters.
Upon accepting the award, Mr. Vickers said, “the OSS spearhead continues to point the way forward” — referencing the military tacticians phrase ‘tip of the spear’ which refers to combat forces used to puncture an enemy’s initial lines of defense.
Now retired and 64, Mr. Vicker’s career included counterterrorism operations in multiple countries with intelligence collection at the highest, most sensitive level.
His Afghanistan experience arming Mujahideen fighters with stinger missiles is considered by historians an instrumental factor in the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the country.
It was also depicted in the book and film “Charlie Wilson’s War” about a Texas congressman who secured funding for clandestine operations there. The film and book title caused colleagues to say, both when the film came out and again during Saturday night’s gala, that “it was Michael Vickers’ war — not Charlie Wilson’s War.”
He also served as assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, and undersecretary of defense for intelligence during the Bush and Obama administrations.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was one of the headliners at the dinner, offering sobering remarks between some of the more rowdy and jovial toasts and speeches.
In just a few months on the job as director of national intelligence, Mr. Coats said, he has gained fresh appreciation for the “cavalcade of significant challenges” facing the U.S. intelligence community — and spoke of his reverence for lessons learned form the OSS.
Mr. Coats described the “basic internal value of intelligence collection” as “ancient and unchangeable.” But he also raised the warning flag that today’s security challenges went far beyond “old school tradecraft” to the massive leaks of classified documents which have recently rattled the U.S. intelligence community. “Technology may change,” Mr. Coates said, “but human psychology does not.”
In 2016, after years of lobbying by the OSS Society, Congress awarded OSS veterans a Congressional Gold Medal.
The society is now fundraising to build a National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations in Northern Virginia to educate the public on the importance of strategic intelligence and “honor Americans who serve at the ‘tip of the spear.’”
— Guy Taylor contributed to this report.
• Dan Boylan can be reached at email@example.com.
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