In one week last September, Danial “Dino” Pick went from managing the $4 million budget of the city of Del Rey Oaks to shaping the $13.2 billion budget for Special Operations in the United States military.
He had been recruited for a temporary assignment that brought him within the top echelon of the Pentagon. The news of his leave, an ascension so sudden and meteoric, caught the community by surprise – his former job commanding the Defense Language Institute didn’t seem a sufficient prerequisite. People who knew him more closely sung of his top-secret past and described him as a real-life Jack Ryan. He served in Special Forces groups twice as an intelligence officer, once in the Asia-Pacific region and once in Iraq in 2003, during the initial U.S. invasion.
Pick is now back home. He resigned from his Del Rey Oaks job for a new assignment, running international graduate programs for the Naval Postgraduate School.
Weekly: Minus the classified part, what you were brought in for?
Pick: There was bipartisan support for the creation of a senior civilian leader that would oversee the Special Operations community and strengthen the civilian oversight over U.S. Special Operations Command.
The reason was a fast growth over the previous 15 years, since 9/11, in the size of the Special Operations enterprise without a strengthening of civilian oversight. The result has been discipline problems, ethical lapses, acquisition missteps and, more recently, a general sense that the Special Operations enterprise was overly focused on counterterrorism rather than on great power competition.
You’re saying a lot here. Can you talk about what ethical issues?
Those issues are fairly high-profile and easy to find on the internet. They involved the SEAL Chief [Eddie] Gallagher. They involve the murder of a Green Beret at the hands of SEALs on deployment in Africa, as well as other high-profile cases.
How do you prevent such things from happening?
It will take resources and it will take a return to a certain mode of oversight by commanders with a focus on professional education and leadership, and less deployed time and more time in garrison to build institutional strengths back. There is a lot more work to do.
What does “focusing on great power competition” mean?
We’re not going to take our eye off al Qaeda or ISIS. But as we are methodically reducing our footprints overseas, we will also be orienting our Special Operations community on great power competition. That means addressing Russian expansionist activities, Chinese efforts in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific region, and actions by states such as Iran and North Korea.
You have a military background, then you went on to serve in local government. How does that lead to a top job at the Pentagon?
I don’t know exactly why I was recruited. I was not privy to that decision. But the fact of the matter is, I spent a lifetime in uniform in national security, and had a network of peers and colleagues that serve in various national security positions.
I was contacted by a colleague that I had served with, and went through the vetting and interview process.
What can you say about your background with special forces?
I served in a Special Forces Group twice. One was Asia-Pacific oriented and the other was Iraq in 2003, during the initial invasion. In both those cases, I was an intelligence officer.
You also speak a large number of languages.
I'm a native Aramaic speaker, Assyrian. I'm pretty handy with Arabic, although I have forgotten so much of it by now. At one point I was pretty fluent in Levantine and Iraqi dialects. I was passable in Farsi and Dari at one point. And then I can get myself in trouble in German and Spanish.
I am curious about you speaking native Aramaic because that’s pretty close to my family’s language, Hebrew.
My mother is originally from Northwestern Iran— the Lake Urmia region, which is a Christian enclave. Her family moved to Tehran in the early ’60s, where she met my father, who is American of European descent. He was working there in the oil business, and they met, were married, moved to the United States, and I was born shortly thereafter.
What was Jan. 6 like at the Pentagon?
I experienced the beginning of the day as most other days in the Pentagon. Then we were watching the newsfeeds on large-screen televisions that we have in our workspaces with growing concern. We were directed to send personnel home to comply with a curfew imposed by the mayor of Washington, D.C. We eventually all got home and watched with horror at what unfolded.
How worried did you get?
I was worried about individual life and property. I was never concerned that the violence would ultimately succeed in somehow conquering the Congress or derailing the electoral process. I continue to have deep faith in the pillars of our democracy because Lord knows they've been challenged, maybe like never before, certainly not since the Civil War and they've withstood the challenge.
When you are near the top of federal decision-making, does managing Del Rey Oaks feel less significant in context?
Not at all. The only reason the federal government exists is to set the conditions for cities, counties and states to have thriving communities. The beauty of our system is that the federal government doesn’t run it all. The vast majority of what affects local day-to-day life involves local jurisdictions, paving roads, making sure the sewer works, water runs, signage is clear, school districts are functioning businesses are allowed to be licensed and operate safely.