The Spy Game

CIA veteran Robert Grenier ’76 offers his take on his critical role in post-9/11 Afghanistan and explains what it was like to deal with Hamid Karzai, U.S. presidents and enhanced interrogation.

In his recent book 88 Days to Kandahar, former Islamabad station chief Robert Grenier delivers a compelling personal account of how he developed a CIA war plan for southern Afghanistan immediately after the twin towers fell. His scheme, approved by President George W. Bush, relied on Afghans, not a U.S.-led force, to drive Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the capital and install Hamid Karzai as the country’s new president. To succeed, Grenier had to deal with Afghan warlords, Pakistani generals and a U.S. chain of command that was not always on the same page. The former philosophy major went on to lead the agency’s counterterrorism center before completing a 27-year career and turning to the private sector, where he now serves as chair of ERG Partners, an investment bank focused on security and intelligence firms. DAM caught up with Grenier by phone in late April. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Why write the book?
I set out to write something that would be accessible to the general reader, to see if I could write an engaging story that would also illuminate some of the issues concerned citizens need to be aware of as we go forward, because I think there are some important lessons that we learned in Afghanistan.

You make several interesting disclosures. What do you think is the most significant?
The fact there were a significant number—probably about 500—Al Qaeda militants who escaped, essentially, under our noses from Kandahar. There’s a lot that’s been written about the militants who were trapped up north in Tora Bora, with bin Laden, but those 500 fighters in the south, once they gave up fighting at Kandahar, basically got clean away. Most of them made their way into the tribal areas of Pakistan. We’re still trying to track them down to this day. If we’d had the right people in the right place at the right time, we might have been able to decimate them with a single air strike.

You write that a Bush White House official floated the idea of preemptive pardons to you and other CIA officers to continue using interrogation techniques that were essentially outlawed a week later by passage of the Detainee Treatment Act in Congress. Wasn’t that bizarre? 
It was a very interesting conversation, and certainly one that surprised me at the time. We were never formally offered them, but George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, was sort of coyly hinting at things that might be possible, basically just to feel us out to find out what it would take for us to continue the interrogation program intact as though the McCain Amendment had never passed.

You also reveal that the British exaggerated their covert capabilities in Afghanistan after 9/11. Was that a big surprise?
I was a little shocked, but it’s not something I would claim harmed our war effort. Our British colleagues were essentially caught unawares and were expected by the prime minister to do something to help the Americans and were not in a position to do very much. So they grossly exaggerated what little capabilities they did have.

How is a book such as yours vetted in advance by the CIA?
They have quite an elaborate system for dealing with it. When you go to work for the agency, you have to sign a statement saying that you will submit any written work for publication outside of the intelligence community for prepublication review by the publications review board. It has to coordinate heavily with people inside the organization who sort of own the information, so part of the trick is to ally yourself with the board to help them make the case for release of the information.

“When our interests didn’t overlap, I would lie to them on behalf of my country, and they were lying to me on behalf of theirs.”

Did you have to pull many punches?
It took about four months to get the manuscript fully cleared, and I came out of the process better than I could have expected going in. There were very few things that I wanted to write about that I wasn’t able to get in the book in some way, shape or form.  Contrary to what many people may think, the board sticks to the facts of what is classified or not and doesn’t try to censor your opinions, even if you have very negative views of the agency or your former colleagues.

Did you have any role in the use of drones in Afghanistan?
Yes, absolutely. I had a lot of involvement as a beneficiary of drone-generated intelligence during 2001 and 2002. Let’s remember that drones then were primarily an intelligence platform, not for directed killings. I became responsible for that program beginning at the end of 2004, when I was director of the counterterrorism center, so at that point I controlled the drones, if you will. To this day President Obama, to say nothing of the CIA, has not acknowledged any formal role of the CIA with the use of armed drones. Obviously, it’s been very strongly implied, but it has never been explicitly admitted by the administration, so I’m a little constricted in terms of what I can say publicly about it all.

What do you think of using drones to kill?
It’s a very important tool in our struggle against global terrorism, useful in those areas that are beyond the effective control of any responsible political authority, whether it’s in the tribal areas of Pakistan, parts of Afghanistan, large parts of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, you can go down the list. In places that are essentially ungoverned territory, it’s not a law enforcement issue because there’s no effective law enforcement, and in those places where the United States has an interest in exercising its sovereign right of self-defense, that’s often the only effective tool we have. So I think it’s one we should be prepared to employ, but I would also hasten to add that it’s one which, in some places and at some times, we have tended to overuse—with some very negative consequences.

In the book you defend the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” How did you view the 2014 Senate torture report?
Let’s remember there were actually three reports. One written by and on behalf of the Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. There was also a dissenting report prepared by the Republicans on that committee—but it’s gone unnoticed I think, in part, because the Democrats’ report is just so salacious. And then there was a formal CIA rebuttal to the Democratic report, which has also gone largely unnoticed in the press. The Democrats’ report makes all sorts of charges against the CIA, many of which I consider blatantly spurious, and employs what I regard as a highly selective and misleading narrative in order to manipulate and energize those who are legitimately opposed to the use of harsh interrogations for what I regard as perfectly valid reasons. I guess I’d say that then-committee chairman Dianne Feinstein set out to write a report that was clearer and more compelling than the truth.

Sounds as though you are no fan of Sen. Feinstein.
I think the report is unfortunate. They were very selective in their use of the facts, and some were presented in a misleading way. Sen. Feinstein made it very clear from the outset that she’s very strongly opposed to these harsh interrogations, so rather than taking an even-handed, dispassionate look at the program and what came from it, she instead used the report as a polemic to make sure that these methods would never be used again.

Were you interviewed for any of the reports?
No. I was dismayed the Democrats didn’t interview any of us. I think that’s why they were able to misuse much of the written record. If somebody gained access to every email that you’d written for the last 10 years, they might find things that could be presented in a way you did not intend, and I think there was a lot of that in the Democratic report.

So what do you say to opponents of torture—let’s say waterboarding, for instance—who feel it is absolutely the wrong approach in any way, shape or form?
Well, if you’re only talking about waterboarding, that’s relatively easy. A lot of people don’t realize it, but there were only three individuals who were ever waterboarded, and they were the worst of the worst of Al Qaeda. Much more to the point, they were the people we expected to have the greatest amount of threat information after they were captured. The program started in mid-2002, but CIA stopped the use of waterboarding in the middle of 2003 in part because the interrogators believed they had refined their methods to the point where they felt confident that if they hadn’t gotten what was to be gotten using other means, then waterboarding would not be effective either.

What about other enhanced interrogation techniques?
There are lots of other techniques, particularly sleep deprivation, that people think should not be employed, and I have a great deal of respect for that view. I don’t necessarily share it in all instances. I don’t think the techniques employed by the CIA, maybe excluding waterboarding, were all that bad. If you were to ask me whether I would rather be receiving harsh interrogation at the hands of the CIA or being interrogated, say, by the Egyptian police, I would choose the CIA every time. There’s torture and there’s torture. I think one of the problems with the Feinstein report was that it did not make a clear distinction between instances where CIA interrogators had clearly exceeded their brief—exceeded what was permitted and were punished as a result of their having done so—with those techniques that were fully approved by the Justice Department and all parties concerned. I think they broke down the distinction between those two and made instances where the rules were broken emblematic of the entire program. I think that is highly misleading.

So, you are in favor of using enhanced interrogation techniques when permitted by U.S. law?
I have perfect respect for the view that we should never do anything beyond what is permitted in a typical U.S. police precinct, but I think we also need to acknowledge that, in some instances, we will pay a price as a result, and it is absolutely not true that we didn’t gain useful and critical information as a result of these interrogations. To say that we should never use harsh interrogation means that we need to accept a certain additional risk, which is very difficult for us to quantify, certainly before the fact. And I have yet to hear anyone say, “As a matter of principle, the United States should never use harsh interrogation, and I’m willing to see Americans potentially die in order to uphold that principle.” Dianne Feinstein doesn’t do that, and that’s why I think she mendaciously tries to make the case that not only is it wrong, but also that it never works. The idea that it never works, frankly, is ridiculous.

You write about being unsettled by the injuries suffered by a young Afghan girl during a bombing. How does it feel to know that lives were at stake with some of your decisions?
You know, it’s a real burden. There were things that happened where people were killed and you wonder, “Well, could I have done something differently? Could I have done more?” And that’s part of the burden that people who are called to serve in those kinds of circumstances have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

You do a fair bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking in your book when it comes to Osama bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan. Did we blow it in Tora Bora in 2001?
It’s always easy to make judgments after the fact. I didn’t have direct command authority over the effort on the Afghan side of the border in the far north, as we were working with Afghan militias and calling in B-52 strikes to try to kill or capture these members of Al Qaeda and bin Laden. Although the intelligence record is spotty, as it almost always is, I think that there’s a good body of evidence to very strongly suggest that, yes, bin Laden was in that vicinity at that time. And it’s the CIA officer who was in charge of that operation who, I think, expressed a lot of recriminations afterward because he asked for large numbers of U.S. troops to deploy in that area and he was refused by the Pentagon. I’m not fully aware of all the circumstances surrounding those decisions, but I’m less quick to point the finger at the military. I think that it’s a very difficult, rugged area. You could easily lose a whole battalion of troops in one of those deep ravines. I’m not sure that a modest addition of troops would have been that effective. Frankly, we don’t really know exactly how bin Laden managed to flee. I don’t think he fled into the same areas that most of his militants did. I think he fled further east into an area called the Tirah Valley, but that’s just speculation on my part. 

Did you see Zero Dark Thirty?
Yes, and I liked it. They had to play a little fast and loose with the truth in a lot of instances, and there were certain characters who were sort of composites of a number of different individuals and they Hollywood-ize a lot of things, but I thought that it did capture much of what that struggle was like.

The teleconferences depicted in the movie were certainly of a higher quality than what you encountered in 2001. The technical difficulties you wrote of were surprising for a so-called superpower—and amusing.
Encrypting video teleconferencing made things that much more cumbersome. The technology was primitive compared with what it is now. It was useful to speak securely back and forth, but it did have its frustrations. At the time it was amazing to send a digital map securely from one point to another. A lot of technologies that seem so common today, such as tracking cell phones, were in their infancy in those days.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but only three individuals were waterboarded, and they were the worst of the worst of Al Qaeda.”

In 88 Days you come across as markedly apolitical. Was that difficult?
I think I’m fairly critical of both Democrats and Republicans as well as praising them where I think it’s merited. I have certain political views, but I didn’t see this book as a vehicle for promoting those. I think there were good things done in the George W. Bush administration and I thought there were some horribly stupid things that were done. I don’t think I pulled many punches in cataloging those, particularly with regard to the Iraq War. Similarly, I tried to be balanced with regard to the Obama administration when I wrote about actions taken and not taken after my time in CIA. The Obama administration was wise to scale back our involvement in Afghanistan, but I thought the decision to launch a surge there, when it seemed clear to me from the outset that any gains made by U.S. troops would not be sustainable by Afghans, was actually criminal. I guess I’m equally abusive of all sides.

Have you considered running for political office?
No. You never say never, but I’m pretty happy with the things that I’m doing right now and I don’t have a real hankering to go back into government at all.

It might be difficult to campaign with the nickname “Islamabad Bob,” don’t you think?
Yeah, that was given to me and apparently came into use at Central Command. They were getting guidance from me, both wanted and unwanted [laughs], and that was the nickname I picked up from them. 

You’ve dealt with an amazing cast of characters, from Afghan warlords to Dick Cheney. Let’s talk about some of them. Are you still in touch with Hamid Karzai, with whom you dealt extensively in 2001 to 2002?
No, although I would like to get back in touch with him now that he’s out of government.

Do you consider him a friend?
That would probably be going a bit far, particularly since we haven’t had personal interactions since I left CIA in 2006. Although U.S. relations with Karzai got difficult toward the end of his tenure, and a lot of official Americans certainly wouldn’t consider him a friend at this stage, I still have a lot of admiration for him. Like most people he has his flat sides and his limitations, but at a critical juncture he was somebody who showed courage in leading the effort against the Taliban and a tremendous degree of wisdom and magnanimity in helping to reunify Afghans after the war was over. During his presidency it must have been extremely difficult for him because he was dealing with a huge American and NATO force, and there were a great many important decisions regarding his country in which he had essentially no active voice, and that created a lot of bitterness and animosity on both sides. 

In your dealings with him were you often frustrated?
He was the sort of person who tended to listen to the last person who spoke to him, you know? It could be startling at times, where he would come up with an absolutely crazy idea and I would go back to him and say, “Well, Hamid, are you sure you want to do that?” and describe maybe some of the unintended consequences of his proposed actions, and he’d say, “Oh, yes, yes, you’re right. Maybe we mustn’t do that.” And I would be left wondering, “Well, which was worse, the fact that he came up with such a cockamamie idea or that it was so easy to talk him out of it?” So he could be very unsteady and very emotional, very flighty in an odd sort of way, but I still have a lot of admiration for his character.

Your dealings with Pakistani intelligence (ISI) seem like the ultimate spy vs. spy game, with lots of intrigue, conniving generals and counterintuitive surprises. What was it like to figure them out?
Yes, dealing with the ISI was a tremendous exercise in the spy game. It was actually a tremendous amount of fun, which might surprise a lot of people. In areas where our interests overlapped we would cooperate very closely. In other areas, where our interests didn’t overlap, yeah, I would lie to them on behalf of my country, and they were lying to me [laughs] on behalf of theirs. There were instances when they assumed, because of their own views of our capabilities and interests, that I must be lying when, in fact, I was telling them God’s own truth. I’m sure the same thing occurred on the other side. It was an interesting relationship and it came at a critically important time for us to cooperate, particularly against Al Qaeda. We had a number of successes. Hundreds of members of Al Qaeda came into U.S. custody directly as a result of our cooperation with the Pakistanis. It was a complicated, nuanced relationship, but one where I developed a great deal of respect for many of the people. In fact, I’m still in touch with some of them.

What do you think of George Tenet, your former boss at the CIA?
I have a lot of admiration for him. I think he was an absolutely brilliant leader for CIA and he had a tremendous way with people. He instilled a fierce loyalty on the part of people in the organization, in part because they knew he was fiercely loyal to them, and I think he led us very effectively at some critical junctures. It’s unfortunate that when he left government he did so as a damaged commodity, primarily because of his involvement in Iraq. Whatever you want to say about mistakes that were made by CIA, they weren’t made by Tenet. They were made by the rest of us.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld?
[Laughs] He is sort of cantankerous and could be difficult, but by the same token he was intellectually curious and somebody with whom you could engage. Early on, because he would listen to me, I overestimated the degree to which I could influence his thinking. [Laughs] What I found was that, while he was curious and he really wanted to engage with you, it was very difficult to change his views once he’d made a decision. So I guess I found him interesting, intriguing and very frustrating.

What were the circumstances that led to your firing by CIA Director Porter Goss in 2006?
That’s complicated. On one level, it was a simple personality conflict with my boss, the director of the National Clandestine Service. He had held my job as head of the counterterrorism center just before me and had definite ideas as to how the job should be done. I disagreed and generally ignored him. He couldn’t fire me, though, without the agreement of Goss. Meanwhile, by the end of 2005, I was refusing to permit continued use of harsh interrogation techniques because the McCain Amendment had removed legal protections for my officers. The White House was less than happy about that, and Goss was under enormous pressure to impose discipline on an insubordinate CIA. Goss wouldn’t have moved to fire me on his own—it wasn’t his style—but by early 2006 it served his purposes to see me go. I guess the wonder is that I survived as long as I did.

Back to your college days. What did you think of Dartmouth?
I absolutely loved Hanover and the area. I loved getting out and about. I remember having a very enjoyable social time [laughs], but I think that it was a point in my personal life where I needed to get out and see something of the wider world. I’d had a fairly closeted existence, a fairly privileged existence. I went to prep school in New England and then onward to college, but even with all that Dartmouth had to offer I just had a hankering to get out into the wider world, so I managed to graduate in three years. 

I found a citation from your comp lit professor, Michael Platt, admiring your take on Nietzsche and Socrates. Does that ring any bells?
Well, yes, it does. He had an enormous influence on me. He was absolutely brilliant and had a big impact on my intellectual development. It’s an association that I still relish and am grateful for. One of his views was that Shakespeare’s greatest contributions were as a philosopher.

You are a board member of the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation. Can you tell us about that?
There have been a significant number of CIA officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, particularly since 9/11. After the first of those casualties after 9/11, a number of retired officers got together and organized this foundation to try to support that person’s children. And the organization has grown over time. We now support not only families of those who are killed in the line of duty, but also families of officers who die of natural causes while on duty. We provide scholarships for both. Because of the success that we’ve had in raising funds, we’re looking to provide support to the CIA community in ways that the government cannot. Some colleagues come back from battle zones and are in need of counseling and other psychological assistance, and that’s not something the government has been in a position to provide on an ongoing basis, so we’re looking into providing those kinds of services.

Is the world a better place because of the CIA?
I would argue that the CIA makes the United States a safer place and I think that it makes U.S. policy more effective. To the extent that the U.S. plays a positive role in the world, then the CIA also makes the world a better place. There is a lot that has been done effectively by the CIA since 2001 that has kept Americans and American interests from being victimized by terrorist strikes. I’m quite proud of that. I think it is an actuarial certainty that sooner or later the United States is going be struck again in a major terrorist attack, but I think there’s a lot that the CIA has done—in some cases using methods that some people disapprove of—to keep that from happening far sooner than it otherwise would.    

Click here to read an excerpt from 88 Days to Kandahar.


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