Person of Interest


Trust, empathy, and a little street Arabic: Robert Grenier ’72 talks about what it takes to be a CIA agent.


During his 27-year career in the Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Grenier ’72 has seen the rise of global terrorism and served on the front lines in the war against it. On September 11, 2001, he was the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan. During the months immediately following the terrorist attacks, Grenier and a small team headed up the initial CIA-led assault on the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that had been giving safe haven to 9/11 planner Osama bin Laden. Grenier wrote about this experience and the war to follow in the book 88 Days to Kandahar (Simon & Schuster).

Grenier later moved from the field—working in North Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe—back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, eventually becoming the CIA’s top counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration. Grenier had a moment in the national spotlight when he testified in the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, who had been charged in connection with the case of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. We talked to Grenier about his influences at Williston, how agents earn the trust of their informants, speaking pidgin-Pashto undercover, and the most important trait a spy needs (hint: It may be the opposite of what you expect).

What’s changed from when you started out in the CIA during the Carter administration?

If you had a pocketful of cash and fake documents, you could be whoever you wanted. It’s now much harder because of the Internet. Technology is making it harder and harder to assume a false identity. To most technical challenges there are technical solutions, but they’re getting more expensive, and the risk of failure is great. Eventually, a spy will have to be who she says she is—which will greatly change the business.

What languages do you speak?

English and French. One regret is that I didn’t take the time to perfect my Arabic. I have some street Arabic. It’s amazing what you can do with a combination of pidgin-English and pidgin-Pashto. The truth is, it’s far more important to understand the culture than to understand the language.

What was an average day like for you as an intelligence officer?

A lot of what I was doing was working in an office. I posed as a petroleum officer, as a businessman. At one point I was processing visas at the consulate in North Africa during the day.

And at night?

And at night…you try to spread yourself very thin, try to meet as many people as you can and to network as much as you can. You try to do it
in a directed way. You try to put yourself in a position where you can potentially meet people who will be of intelligence interest.

Then what happens?

It starts with friendship. It starts with trust. You try to understand what their motivations are.  And the range of motivations is almost endless. Often there’ll be motives that an individual will admit to themselves, and
other motivations they won’t admit to—even to themselves.

So you’re thinking like a friend, like a psychiatrist, like an actor—and at the same time, you have to think of the big geopolitical picture.

That’s right, you’re thinking at all these levels simultaneously, but it’s all in the context of a personal relationship. So, yes, you’re an actor in a way, you’re trying to turn yourself into the person that this other person needs. But by the same token, it’s engaging you as a human being. Even if you’re dealing with someone who’s engaged in terrorism. This person’s done some very bad things, and yet, you have to be able to understand them, to have a certain amount of empathy: why they do what they do, how they feel, and why they feel as they feel. So even if you don’t share that—and even if you strongly disapprove of what they’re doing—you have to be able to meet them at a human level. If there’s one trait that an intelligence officer has to have, it’s empathy.

And yet, there’s the myth that spies can’t make authentic connections with people. Do you have to guard yourself?

I think that’s true, and that’s what makes it so complicated. Yes, there’s a certain amount of detachment that you have to maintain. Often, we are asking someone to take some big risks. For instance, I’ve dealt with people in very sensitive positions who, had they been caught cooperating with U.S. intelligence, would certainly have been fired or imprisoned, and in some cases might have been executed. That’s a huge responsibility that you’re taking on. So, there’s a certain amount of detachment that’s necessary.

What’s an indelible memory from your fieldwork days?

I once had a source who was working against a criminal, rogue regime. The source, in turn, recruited a childhood friend of his as part of his network. In the end, the childhood friend betrayed my source—reported him to the government they were working against, and then led a hit-team to intercept him. My source was shot dead in a seaside restaurant. Were there things I could have done to prevent this? Perhaps. My source made mistakes, did things I told him not to, which made him vulnerable. It’s an incident I will never forget. I was young then. But it’s a reminder: We are working against people who are playing for keeps.

After your posts overseas, you returned to the states to assume leadership positions in the Bush administration’s CIA. How did your experience on the ground inform your work?

You’re talking about the classic divide between the policy makers in Washington and the people on the ground. After I came back from Afghanistan, I became CIA Director George Tenet’s point person on Iraq. I started attending meetings of the so-called deputies committee, the deputy heads of all the concerned national-security-related departments of government. And I remember what struck me, sitting in those meetings in the West Wing of the White House, was the thought that, “Oh my God, these people think that they can actually control this. They think that sitting right here in Washington, they can control all this stuff.” They couldn’t. I knew it, and they didn’t.

How can governments achieve just the right touch so that they’re influencing the right thing, but not the wrong thing?

These are not easy questions. You can be accused of doing too much and too little at the same time. These are often intractable questions and foreign-policy making, particularly for a country with the influence of the United States, is not an easy proposition.

Which Williston teachers influenced you?

Of course I remember Al Shaler. He was my cross- country coach and I also was in his English class my junior year. And it’s hard to put into words, exactly how does that influence one? But I guess it was a freedom of thought. I remember Stephen Seybolt ’58 who was also an English teacher during that time, and I took one of his electives. I found him a very unconventional thinker. By following his classes it taught me to think in unconventional ways. To develop a comfort with exploring ideas and pursuing them. He had a big influence on me. I remember Robert Varnum ’60. He was my history teacher in my junior year. He helped me see history in a different, more three-dimensional, way. You know, when I was a kid, as kids do, I liked to read histories and biographies and I tended to see things in two dimensions. Good guys and bad guys. He helped me see history and historical characters in human dimensions.

Given all you’ve seen over your career, are you hopeful about the future?

Absolutely. I believe there has been progress. The world is becoming a better place, but we need to be concerned about what happens elsewhere. To quote John Kennedy’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “Other nations have interests. The United States has responsibilities.” From the end of World War II, the U.S. has emerged with preeminent power. We are obligated to use it wisely.

For more stories about Williston Northampton School alumni, click here.