MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Robert Grenier has made a career of staying out of the public eye. He spent 27 years in the CIA's clandestine service, rising to become the CIA's top counterterrorism officer. But Grenier was thrust into the spotlight in February when he was fired from that post. His dismissal made national headlines. News accounts suggested Grenier was forced out because he wasn't aggressive enough. Grenier denies that, but he does have some concerns about U.S. interrogation and detention practices.
Grenier sat down for his first ever interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:
When Bob Grenier took over the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, he was already steeped in al-Qaida and the tribal politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Grenier had run the CIA station in Islamabad. He was in his office there on 9/11. But Grenier first heard the news the same way many American did, on CNN.
MR. ROBERT GRENIER (Formerly of the CIA Counterterrorism Center): And when I turned on the television and saw that image that everybody did of, you know, the smoking tower, you almost wanted to believe at first that it was an accident. And I remember saying, boy that was damn careless. And then when the second plane hit the tower, it was unmistakable at that point, if it wasn't before, that this was a terrorist act.
KELLY: And you must have known sitting as the CIA station chief in Pakistan that your life was about to get a lot more interesting.
Mr. GRENIER: Yes. I could not imagine everything that came. It was, the year after 9/11 was quite an adventure.
KELLY: And so have been the four years since. After Pakistan, Grenier was called back to headquarters to run the CIA's Iraq Issues Group. And in 2004, he was promoted to the agency's top counterterrorism job. Grenier's tenure has coincided with the disclosure of controversial practices, including allegations of secret CIA prisons overseas and of aggressive interrogation techniques that border on torture. Grenier will not confirm the specifics of CIA operations, but he says they're all legal.
Mr. GRENIER: The law is being strictly obeyed. And there is law in this area. It's not a very clear law, unfortunately, but there is law. And we are very serious about obeying the law and making sure that our people obey the law.
KELLY: Grenier says recent efforts to clarify what's legal have only clouded the picture. For example, the McCain Amendment, legislation pushed through last year by Republican Senator John McCain, which bans the immune treatment of prisoners.
Mr. GRENIER: It says that we cannot, as a matter of policy, engage in cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment of detainees, but we knew that all along. The rub, obviously, is in the way that you interpret that on the ground. Well, what does that mean. And something which may be cruel, inhumane or degrading to one individual, may be entirely reasonable - under these circumstances, at least - to somebody else.
KELLY: Grenier says it needs to be spelled out. And he says low-level officers in the field need to be protected and reassured they won't be left holding the bag if policy makers change their minds about what's acceptable.
Another concern Grenier acknowledges is the status of high-level detainees. A few dozen are believed to be in U.S. custody without access to either lawyers or the international Red Cross. Grenier thinks the situation is not sustainable.
Mr. GRENIER: And I'm speaking strictly as an individual, as a citizen here. But no, I think in all cases, there has to be some form of due process. I believe that that is the intent. That I think there's a wide recognition that this needs to happen.
KELLY: Is that something you ever raised with policy officials?
Mr. GRENIER: It's certainly a view that I have expressed.
KELLY: With White House officials?
Mr. GRENIER: I don't think it's useful for us to start down the road of talking about who said what to whom. The point is that there are decisions that I think have to be made along these lines. If you delay these decisions indefinitely, then that has the ultimate effect of disappearing people. And I don't think that anyone would argue in favor of that.
KELLY: In fact, some would argue that key terror suspects have already been disappeared. Al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaida, for example, was captured more than four years ago. Human rights groups say they have not had access and don't know where he is.
Bob Grenier looks uncomfortable when asked about his dismissal in February. The CIA declined to comment. But there were reports that Grenier was perceived as overly cautious. Grenier says, not the case. He just didn't get along with his boss. He say he was offered other positions within the agency.
Mr. GRENIER: With regard to this whole issue about, you know, being aggressive enough, gosh, I suspect there are a number of terrorists around the world who would be surprised by that.
KELLY: Now that he's no longer leading U.S. efforts to track down terrorists, Grenier's considering a few job offers. He says his plans include writing, some public speaking, maybe venturing out onto the think tank circuit.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.