How Are CIA Moles Recruited?

Melissa Block talks to Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, about how moles are recruited in operations similar to the one which revealed the most recent "underwear" bomber plot.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

More now on how Saudi intelligence may have managed to infiltrate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Robert Grenier is the former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, who also served in CIA posts in the Middle East. He says one avenue for Saudi intelligence is family and tribal relations.

ROBERT GRENIER: We do know that there are many members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps a majority of them, who are of Saudi extraction. It was Saudis' success against its homegrown militants since 2003 that has driven a great many of these people across the border to refuge in Yemen. And their natural proclivity would be to reach out to members of their tribes and clans for support in mounting their operations. And that, of course, would give the Saudis an opportunity to exploit. And so I suspect that something like that may have happened in this case.

BLOCK: So that's a pressure point, the tribal relations that the Saudi officials would know, this is our way in. This could be our way in.

GRENIER: Yes. And precisely for the same reason that the militants hiding in Yemen would tend to trust the people who are closest to them, that then is a potential vulnerability that the Saudis or others would try to exploit.

BLOCK: After 9/11, there was a lot of criticism of Saudi intelligence. Many of the hijackers were Saudi. How much progress do you think has been made since then?

GRENIER: Oh, I think tremendous progress has been made, and particularly since May of 2003. Dealing with religiously-inspired radicals is nothing new in Saudi Arabia. They've been at it since the 1930s. But their default position normally is to co-opt such people. And after 9/11, that was still their default position. I think that May of 2003 when there were a significant number of bombings in Riyadh convinced the Saudis that there was no making peace with these people, that it was going to be them or us.

And since then, they have gotten very, very serious and they have developed a tremendous amount of capability.

BLOCK: One of those attacks, in particular, more recently was an attack specifically on the Saudi chief of counterterrorism, right?

GRENIER: Yes. So that one obviously struck very close to home. And apparently, from what one reads, this individual who was responsible for this suicide attack against Mohammed bin Nayef was the younger brother of the bomb maker in this case, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.

BLOCK: Is the relationship between Saudi and U.S. intelligence now to the point where you would assume that U.S. intelligence would be in the loop on this operation all the way along?

GRENIER: I wouldn't assume anything like that, actually. Even among services that cooperate closely, there is a great deal of jealousy and distrust. You always want to keep your own operations entirely in your own control. I suspect, though, that in this case the Saudis realizing that the likely intended target of this individual would be American, that it would be wise for them to bring the Americans into the loop, lest something go wrong.

They may have also have wanted to rely on the Americans for some of their technical expertise. So I suspect that there was mutual advantage here that was at work behind the scenes.

BLOCK: Technical expertise that would come to bear, how?

GRENIER: Well, in any number of ways. Again, I'm going by press reports, which are always at least 50 percent wrong, but - present company accepted I'm sure.

BLOCK: Of course.

GRENIER: But, you know, we're told that there was independent monitoring of the device as opposed to the individual. Well, maybe the device was being tracked in some way and perhaps U.S. intelligence or U.S. technical capabilities were being employed to do that. There may have been U.S. technology employed to communicate with this agent, which would have been very difficult because he would have been very closely monitored and any attempt to communicate surreptitiously would have tipped people that this was somebody who was actually working against them.

BLOCK: As somebody who was on the inside of the CIA for so many years, thinking about this agent coming out, if you were in the room with him, what would you want to know? What would be the first questions you'd ask?

GRENIER: I would simply want him to take me through, chronologically, everything that he did when he crossed the border until he came back. Often, people know a great deal more than they think they know. And so rather than asking fairly specific questions at the outset, I would just want him to go into a long narrative. Just tell me everywhere you went, everybody you saw, everything that you can possibly remember, and then ask follow-up questions as he goes through that narrative.

BLOCK: Robert Grenier, thanks for coming in.

GRENIER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Robert Grenier, who spent 27 years in the CIA's clandestine service. He directed the CIA's counterterrorism center from 2004 to 2006.

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