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Lt Col. Keith Miller’s Q&A

Responsibility and Leadership with Army Lt. Col. Keith Miller

Q&A: Lieutenant Colonel Keith Miller (US Army) On The Role Of Strategic Intelligence In US National Security Policy

By Jonathan Movroydis

Lieutenant Colonel Keith B. Miller, representing the US Army, is a National Security Affairs Fellow for academic year 2021–22 at the Hoover Institution.

In this conversation, Miller talks about his two-decade career in the army, first as an armor officer and then in strategic intelligence.

He describes the unique role of strategic intelligence officers. Unlike tactical intelligence specialists in the armed services who collect and analyze information about the activity of America’s rivals, strategic intelligence officers offer holistic perspectives and answer nebulous questions about the global threat landscape. Miller explains, for example, that his duties would not solely entail monitoring the massing of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border but, more importantly, addressing the various geopolitical factors behind President Putin’s decision to threaten Ukraine.

Miller says that he would like to spend his fellowship year at Hoover researching ways that the United States can best address unconventional and information warfare deployed by Russia on its immediate neighbors and European Union member states and what innovative intelligence capabilities or practices may be able to shed light on its gray zone operations. Another area of interest for Miller is the transformation of the current culture of the US military to one that is less averse to risk. He explains that although the need for innovation is stressed at senior levels of the military, the process of change is slow, and creativity is often stifled because of an inflexible adherence to an age-old mission-control doctrine that places too many constraints on leaders when risk becomes high.

Why did you join the US Army?

My father was in the army. However, by the time I was born, he had transferred to the reserves. I had always grown up around the military, but it was never foisted upon me. I also enjoyed watching movies about knights and their exploits, so I was always inspired about fighting for good versus evil and protecting those who couldn’t.

My twin brother and I attended the University of Washington, where, on a whim, he decided to sign up for the campus’s Army ROTC program. Finding it intriguing, I said, “Hey, I’ll follow you in.” I try my best to finish what I started. I also felt that, as a citizen, I owed something back to my country, and consequently this took me down the path of service. The army just took hold of me and here I am twenty-one years later.

What did you study at the University of Washington?

I studied sociology and had to work my way through university to pay for room and board. I was a janitor. I was a nighttime office painter. I washed yachts on the Puget Sound during the wintertime, which is terrible because it's very cold and rainy. I also delivered pizza and was a barista.

Can you describe your career arc in the US Army?

After my commission in the army, I served for over a decade as an armor officer. After I returned to the States from Iraq in 2009, my wife told me that she was tired of worrying about me getting shot. It was also about that time in the army when officers have the freedom to choose a new specialty, a functional area. I started to explore the idea of becoming a strategic intelligence officer and was excited to learn that it would offer me the opportunity to attend graduate school—which was just a remote possibility when I was in armor.

A strategic intelligence officer has a holistic view of various national security threats, including terrorism, unconventional warfare, and hybrid warfare. We look at all regions of the world, especially current hot spots around Russia and China’s borders and in the Middle East. There is a key difference between our work and those of tactical intelligence officers in the various service branches. A tactical intel officer might say, “A Russian battalion tactical group is moving near the border with Ukraine.” A strategic intel officer asks the more nebulous question, “What are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motives?”

We try to frame issues for senior leaders at combat commands or on staffs at the Pentagon. We also work across different agencies in the federal government like the FBI and the CIA.

What areas of intelligence do you cover?

I have served most of my strategic intelligence career at European Command and in Special Operations Command. In Europe, my work encompassed security cooperation between NATO member nations and the enhancement of their military capabilities. At Special Operations Command, I specialized in hybrid warfare and gray zone operations. Much of this work was focused on the activity of Russian special forces. I also looked at the potential use of nuclear weapons by unconventional state actors.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of being a strategic intelligence officer?

Part of our work is analysis, but in many ways, we lead the intelligence apparatus. The best part of the job is two-fold. One, as I mentioned earlier, we conduct security cooperation missions with our partners, such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Azerbaijan. We share intelligence with these and other countries in order to help deter adversaries. The other part of the job that I really enjoy is leading a team and interacting with multiple entities across government in order to ensure that we are doing our part to protect America’s national security interests.

What was your most challenging deployment?

Each deployment comes with its challenges and rewards. The surge in Iraq around 2007–08 was a tough deployment. The nature of this mission was nuanced. We were trained to fight, not to organize our units to revive economies, rebuild roads and infrastructure, and win the hearts and minds of locals. Yet, we were charged with accomplishing all this type of work, in the hope that we could defuse an insurgency.

Then, suddenly, we get blindsided by an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion or precision small arms fire. To some degree, we looked towards some members of the local population who could have done something to prevent such violence. Of course, they couldn’t inform us for a variety of reasons, including that their family was in danger of reprisals.

What will be your research focus at the Hoover Institution?

I am very familiar with European security issues, but I want to conduct research on how America can best address unconventional and information warfare deployed by Russia on its immediate neighbors and European Union member states. For example, I’d like to learn more about the different types of propaganda techniques that the Kremlin deploys to sow division, promulgate false political narratives, and cause destabilization within European societies. When a nation is destabilized, they are much more vulnerable to an attack by their aggressor.

I also want to research ways we can improve talent within the army. The army constantly talks about innovation, but in fact, we can be overly risk-averse at times—understandably, given that being second is not a good place to be in our line of work. But at times, risk must be ventured. Those who are promoted often follow a formulaic path. Some take just enough risk to get noticed but are less likely to risk failure for fear of damage to reputation or position. Throughout the army, we often promote people who look like ourselves or have followed a traditional path. We sometimes believe, “I reached this position by doing my job this way, this must be the optimal path.”

We have a philosophy in the military called mission command. Put simply, it is centralized intent with decentralized execution and promotes freedom and speed of action and initiative, within defined constraints, when the risk gets too high. Even though this has been the military’s philosophy for many years, we should still do more to empower and place trust in subordinates. A lot of times, it is difficult for senior officers to change. Because if you’re my subordinate and if you fail, I may look poorly in that snapshot of time.

I have also been spending a lot of time with the Stanford student mentees—a freshman and two sophomores. They are fantastic. Up until now, they have had little interaction with anyone working in government, let alone the military. I have enjoyed telling them about some of my own experiences in the army and have encouraged them to think about a career in public service.

I have told them about a joint personnel recovery team that goes out and recovers American servicemen and women who died in war in other countries as one possibility. I have urged them to consider careers as diplomats in the State Department or as intelligence officers in the CIA or other agencies. One of the mentees is interested in art history. I said to this student, “Look, there are a whole bunch of museums and art restoration projects within the government and the military.” This could be an avenue of service.

There are many ways in which you can serve and give back to our country. It doesn’t necessarily have to be government service. You could even give back to your local community in some way. The sky is really the limit.

Is there anyone at Hoover who has made you think differently?

I really enjoy talking to Peter Robinson and hearing his anecdotes as a speech writer to President Reagan. Amy Zegart has led some very interesting discussions about innovation and risk that really strike home for me. H. R. McMaster has been congenial in talking about his own experience in the army and in the White House as national security adviser. We recently had a lunch with Condoleezza Rice, in which she gave some very eye-opening remarks regarding domestic and world affairs.

Where do you look for inspiration?

I would have to say my twin brother, who also serves in the army, and colleagues throughout the armed services with whom I have worked closely. I am especially inspired by their self-sacrifice, their ability to achieve in very demanding situations, and their capacity to think critically and solve problems creatively.

What does leadership mean to you?

I think leadership is two-fold. One, leadership means being a good follower. When it makes sense to follow someone, you should support that person and give them a chance to lead. For example, people often say when something goes wrong, “It’s not my fault. The boss told me to do this.” Or they might say, “This is really dumb, but we have to do it because the boss wants us to.” Sorry, you should support your leader and own the tasks assigned to you. If you have an issue with a decision made by the leader, you can approach him or her and suggest alternatives.

The other attribute of a good leader is the willingness to jump in and take charge and responsibility.

As I said before, many times people do not want to take responsibility for something because it could go wrong. Why would you want to do something that could go wrong? Well, sometimes it may go wrong, but ultimately you must trust and empower your people. You must give them clear guidance on what you expect from them and the resources they need to succeed, but you don’t always have to give specifics because that might stifle their creativity. Instill the drive to win.