Few who have seen the dramatic privatization of US intelligence operations from the inside ever speak about the role private contractors play in covert operations–certainly not in public. In late June, however, the CIA’s former top counterterrorism official, Robert Grenier, participated in a rare public discussion on issues ranging from the incredible extent to which the US has relied on contractors to fill sensitive national security positions; to battlefield contractors in Afghanistan; to allegations of contractor involvement in “direct action” (lethal) operations, as well as commenting on Blackwater owner Erik Prince’s reported involvement in a secret CIA assassination program. The former spy also criticized what he called attempts by the US military to “overstep their bounds” by conducting intelligence operations that traditionally have fallen under the purview of the CIA.
Grenier was undoubtedly one of the US intelligence community’s heavy hitters in the aftermath of 9/11. He was CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan when the 9/11 attacks took place and coordinated the initial incursions by CIA personnel and contractors in the first year of the US invasion of Afghanistan. After a stint in what Grenier jokingly called “our excellent adventure in Iraq,” where, as chief of the Iraq Issues Group, he planned covert US actions in the lead up to and ultimate invasion of the country, Grenier was named as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), the unit coordinating the tip of the spear of the CIA’s covert activities. In 2006, Grenier left the CIA, reportedly over disagreements with then-CIA director Porter Goss, including the issue of treatment of detainees and prisoners. After leaving the agency, Grenier worked at Kroll Inc., a security consulting firm, and is currently chairman of ERG Partners, a small consulting company.
Grenier and I participated in a frank discussion, along with Professor Katerie Carmola, author of Private Security Contractors and New Wars: Risk, Law, and Ethics, at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, where I had a chance to publicly ask Grenier some specific questions.