Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Atkins, representing the US Air Force as a National Security Affairs Fellow in 2013–14, is known at Hoover as a funny guy. But in this interview, Atkins showed a different, more serious side. We can only suppose that the humor and gravity dichotomy are necessary qualities of an intelligence officer and man hunter.
Atkins earned his undergraduate degree in economics and Russian from the University of Virginia; he holds a master’s degree in information resource management from Central Michigan University and a master’s in national security studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. As an intelligence officer, he has spent much of his career in special operations and intelligence collection; he also commanded an airborne intelligence squadron. At Hoover, he is using network and organizational theories to study Silicon Valley business and innovation practices, focusing on how an organization determines the value of an individual using a hierarchical model. How is this relevant to man hunting? “In the current environment we might only get one shot or one opportunity to arrest an individual,” explains Atkins. “So, if it’s one guy we’ve got to make sure it counts.”
Atkins generously took the time to sit down to share his life in the military and thus far at Hoover. This is part of a series featuring National Security Affairs Fellows from the 2013–14 academic year.
Why did you join the air force?
Well, I wanted to be a spy ever since I was a little kid. I even made a fake passport when I was little except for my occupation I listed “secret agent”, so my tradecraft left a lot to be desired. [Laughing] I went through college and started working for the State Department because in the early 90s it was one of the only conduits to the CIA but they weren’t hiring. I then decided the best pathway was to become a military intelligence officer. I shopped around the different services and decided that the Air Force is the most technical, with space and cyber and airborne intelligence and all the neat stuff. So, I joined the Air Force in 1995 and I went straight into intelligence officer training, and have been living the dream ever since. I mean I’ve always wanted to do intelligence work. I never, never had the desire to really do anything else. So, it’s sort of the logical conclusion.
How many deployments have you had and to where?
Since 9-11 I’ve had nine combat deployments—six to Afghanistan, one to Iraq, one to East Africa, and one to Southeast Asia. And before 9-11 I was gone all the time too, to the Middle East and South America and two tours in Bosnia. When you actually add it all up, it is a considerable amount of time; for instance I’ve spent forty-nine months of my life in Afghanistan.
What was the biggest challenge of your career and why?
The biggest challenge of my career was clearly February 18, 2012. I was the squadron commander for a special operations squadron, and one of my young airmen was killed in a plane crash in Africa. I had to notify his wife in person, and then drive a few miles and notify his mom that their son and husband had just been killed. The next two months was spent trying to keep the squadron together, keep people focused on the mission. It was particularly difficult because he was a twenty-two year-old guy, very popular, a person I knew very well because I went through airborne training with him. And it really shattered the notion of invincibility that all my young operators had been living under. We’d been flying risky combat missions in war for ten years with few fatalities, and everybody thought they were invincible. So when Julian got killed, it really shook us to the core.
What do you see as the Air Force’s top challenges in the next few years?
There’s simply not enough money in the bank for the Air Force to modernize and keep doing what it’s doing. It’s going to be a huge struggle. My fear is that the intelligence community in particular is going to have to take significant cuts in order to fund advanced weapon systems, but the demand on intelligence is just going to continue to go up as we shift from the Afghanistan/Iraq model back to a peacetime one where there’s a hundred small wars being fought all over the world. The demands on special operations and intelligence are going to continue to increase, but our budgets are going to decrease and that’s going to put us in a tough situation again. We won’t be able to keep the same pressure on Al-Qaeda and its associated movements if we’ve reduced our ability to deploy and use these tools and these weapons.
What was it like to adjust from your last job to the Hoover fellowship?
That was a pretty dramatic adjustment because I literally left Kabul and moved to Palo Alto. I was the director of intelligence for all the special operations units in Afghanistan, with roughly 13,000 coalition special operators and about 29,000 Afghan partners. I was a mentor to several Afghan generals and was teaching them the fundamentals of manhunting while the Taliban was trying to kill me. So to leave that and to move out to Mountain View was absolutely a huge adjustment. I was barely sleeping, it was immense stress, so much pressure, and then you move here are told, no, no, no, your job is to think. It honestly took me at least a month or so to even come close to normalcy. But you know, anytime I miss Kabul I just drive on the 101 and it’s the same amount of people trying to kill you. So, it feels like home. [Laughing]. But it actually has been good for the soul as far as the intellectual stimuli and the ability to read books and to talk to interesting, intelligent people who aren’t trying to kill you.
What’s something you've learned since coming to Hoover from a class, a colleague, a fellow, or student that made you think differently?
I was fortunate to take a brilliant History class called War and Society. It’s really interesting to be in there with young nineteen- and twenty-year-old students who have no exposure to the military and openly talk about war with them. I would have to say that the questions that they ask are very insightful, sometimes naive. Certainly, you can’t expect them to have this deep knowledge of what it’s like to go kill people. But the discussions in that class really stimulated me to go back and think about how I view the world. It caused some deep introspection about what I’ve been through, and what I’ve done. It truly was a remarkable experience.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I have spent most of my life in Virginia and Alabama and Florida, and I’ve never lived on the West Coast before. So, California truly is an open book for me. More often than not, I’m in the car exploring the mountains or the coast or the city or the wineries. There is just so much to see and do here that it is alien to me. So, I try to get out the door as much as I can, travel and drink wine and experience the Bay Area before it is back to the salt mines.
What does leadership mean to you and how do we develop it in others?
I’m a firm believer that there are certain intrinsic characteristics to leadership that can’t be taught; there are certain talents that people are born with. However, that doesn't mean you can’t become a good leader by applying rigorous study. I am a strong believer in the importance of reading history, military history in particular, and biographies.
Another aspect of leadership that I have ascribed to is that leadership does not only occur at the top; it is needed at all levels of an organization. Just like you need flight commanders and staff sergeants to lead their sections, a business or university needs people that can be both good leaders and followers. Too many people are obsessed with becoming a CEO and miss out on developing skills at the more basic levels.
What’s a funny story about your fellow NSAFs that you would like to share?
Well, I don't want to incriminate myself. I probably am at least partially responsible for most of the shenanigans that happen around here.
One thing that has been fun to watch has been the group of us harnessing our talents for less-serious endeavors than military operations. We are used to bringing rigor to planning and execution of grim business, so it has been comical to bring that same discipline to goofing off. We are remarkably good at road trips and tailgating, and our Bloody Marys are something to behold.