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.
Grenier estimated that "many more than half" of the personnel who worked under him at the CIA’s counterterrorism center were private contractors. Contractors "were coming in and they were all over the place," Grenier said of his time at CTC. "Often I would go down and talk to people in my work force and I would say, ‘Hey, that was a great job and I saw what you did last night, I saw that cable that you turned up, thank you very much.’ And I’d be startled when they would give me a business card."
It is difficult to access detailed information about the extent to which US intelligence activities are privatized, primarily because the budgets of the eighteen intelligence agencies operated by the United States are mostly classified. In 2007, journalist Tim Shorrock, who wrote the definitive book on the privatization of intelligence, Spies for Hire, obtained and published an unclassified document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. No documents on these classified budgets have been made public since.
Grenier largely defended the use of contractors, primarily because he said he believes that the government, in a time of war, needs to be able to hire skilled, specialized personnel capable of securing the necessary security clearances. "It’s far easier to go through the process to get a contractor if time is an issue than it would be to bring somebody on as a regular employee," Grenier said. He said that when he was running CIA operations in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, he was working with several of his predecessors who had left the CIA, but returned, with their experience and clearances, as independent contractors. Grenier cited another "very prosaic" reason for the reliance on contractors: the federal budgeting process.