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“Afghanistanand Pakistan has brought more attention of CIA to India”

Robert Grenier was one of the most experienced spies to run the far-flung US intelligence network. He witnessed and was on the front lines of former President George W Bushís war on terror as the station chief in Pakistan. From his seat in Islamabad, he oversaw the unmanned Predator drone program, which has become the agency’s most lethal weapon against suspected terrorists. He also helped plan covert operations in support of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. By the summer of 2002, with President Bush heading towards war in Iraq, then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet recalled Grenier to headquarters and promoted him to chief of a newly created Iraq Issues Group. He served the agency for over two decades and become known as one of its premier south Asian experts. Robert Grenier also served as the CIA’s top counter-terrorism official for about a year. In an exclusive interview to THE WEEK magazine he confirmed that Pakistan captured and handed over the highest-profile members of Al-Qaeda such as Abu Zubayda and Ramsi bin al-Shibh to the CIA. He spoke about suspected terrorist David Headley and his visit to Pakistan in 2002 when he was a CIA station chief of Pakistan.  

Excerpts from Interview

Q. Last year CIA director Mr. Leon Panetta unveiled a blueprint for the agency future called CIA 2015. It talks of enhancing the capability of the agency and recruiting and training a diverse workforce with language capabilities. Is India a part of the CIA’s new resurrection?

A. Mr. Panetta’s five-year blueprint does not represent a sharp departure from the recent past. Rather, it seeks to further reinforce and build upon development plans, many of which have been in place since shortly after the attacks of 11 September 2001. I would not say that India is directly a part of these changes, but active recruitment among Americans of Asian and South-Asian background certainly would be. CIA is also planning to invest heavily to better manage huge volumes of data, and to adopt more efficient business management practices.

Q. You served in the agency for 27-years and had a distinguished career as a head of its counter terrorism unit? What objectives does the US intelligence agency primarily address in India? What are the US intelligence priorities in India?

A. It is obvious that India is neither a current nor a potential threat to the U.S., and that the two countries are coming closer. Therefore, I should think the main goal of U.S. intelligence would be to enhance cooperation with India in areas where their interests clearly converge. Analytically, the U.S. would want to better understand the regional and global implications of India’s rising economic and military power.

Q. The Indo-US Cyber Security Forum, a subgroup of the Joint Indo-US Working Group on Terrorism, was derailed after a spy scandal came to light allegedly involving the US citizen Rosanna Minchew. Within India’s security establishment many are skeptical about India-US intelligence cooperation. Their confidence is shaken by the alleged spy plots of the CIA in India. What is your take on it?

A. One can understand how many in India’s security establishment would be wary of closer cooperation with U.S. intelligence in the fields of counter-terrorism and cyber security, for fear that this will increase India’s exposure and, thus, vulnerability to U.S. espionage. Frankly, however, I think this concern is overblown, and reflects a holdover of suspicions which date to the Cold War, when India was aligned with the Soviet camp and regarded the U.S. with a great deal of suspicion and hostility. Americans have largely forgotten this history, but my impression is that many in the Indian security establishment have not.

Q. Who decides when the CIA should participate in covert actions?

A. Decisions regarding covert actions – as distinct from intelligence gathering ñ rest solely with the U.S. President. They cannot be undertaken without his express consent.

Q. You were CIA station chief of Pakistan during 1999-2002. It is reported that suspected terrorist David Headley made several trip to Pakistan between 2002 to 2005. Do you had any knowledge and information on him?

A. During my time in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence was greatly preoccupied with a large number of active, high-profile terrorists operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Mr. Headley traveled to Pakistan in 2002, he was certainly an obscure figure at that time. I have no personal recollection of him.

Q. The US was reportedly able to broker effective information-sharing between India and Pakistan about the Nov 2008 Mumbai attacks. You recently wrote that India did little in turn for the US. What were expectations from India within the agency?

A. I have certainly never suggested that the U.S. should receive a quid-pro-quo from India for such assistance, but I have often suggested the need for U.S. and Indian intelligence to overcome past suspicions to cooperate more closely. Frankly, and with all deference to the sensitivity of the issue, the most helpful thing India could do would be to address and alleviate the legitimate grievances of those who are protesting in Kashmir. Successful attempts to remove regional sources of tension would go a long way to undercut the appeal of violent groups.

Q. The Lashkar-e-Tyeba and its brother organisations such as jaish-e-Mohammed are the main source and exporters of terror from the south Asian region. However, the CIA is still seemed focused on fighting al Qaida. Is it true that the CIA has closed its eyes to the activities of LeT, JeM and other ISI-linked organisations?

A. The CIA has certainly not closed its eyes to the activities of LeT, JeM, and other such groups. Naturally, the U.S. places a particular priority on countering al Qaida, given past history and the potent continuing threat which AQ poses to the U.S. Since 9/11, however, there has been a clear trend toward closer cooperation and coordination between AQ and other extremist groups, who increasingly see themselves as part of the same movement. LeT, in particular, has shown itself to pose a threat well outside of South Asia, and is a growing preoccupation of the U.S. and other western countries.

Q. How cooperative is the ISI in the CIA’s war on al Qaeda? Is the Indian perception that the ISI is hunting with the hounds and running with the hare right?

A. Since 9/11, the ISI has provided critical and, indeed, invaluable assistance against al Qaida. It should be remembered that the highest-profile members of the organization to be captured, such as Abu Zubayda, Khalid Shaykh Mohammed, Ramsi bin al-Shibh, and many others were, in fact, captured by Pakistan. In the tribal areas of the far north-west, however, the situation is far more difficult, as these are areas beyond Pakistan’s effective control. There al Qaida terrorists benefit from the active support of local militants, many of whom are currently engaged in hostilities against the Pakistan Army.

Q. Many believe the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has brought more attention of American intelligence agencies like CIA to India. Do you agree with that observation?

A. Perhaps, but only to a degree. The difficulties in Afghanistan and Pakistan are primarily being addressed in those two countries. However, closer cooperation among regional militants with groups whose focus in the past has been restricted to Kashmir does tend to bring India more centrally into view for American intelligence.

 (March 27 2011, THE WEEK)

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