Intelligence officer brings lessons from Afghanistan to UAB

Whether his audience is a military general or college students, Assistant Professor John Grimes makes every effort to defend our country.

When Col. John Grimes tells you the two greatest threats to “operational security” — any operation carried out by a company, group or individual with the help of the internet – are habit and convenience, there is good reason to take note.

john_grimes_storyGrimes, director of intelligence analytics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research, has spent 29 years in a military uniform. He spent 2011 in Afghanistan as a senior intelligence officer for the National Ground Intelligence Center, his second combat tour since 9/11. He provided counter-intelligence reports directly to director of the Central Intelligence Agency Gen. David Petraeus, then-commander of the International Security Assistance Force and commander of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan, nearly every day.

“When we sit at our keyboard we all have certain habits,” says Grimes, who is trading his uniform for professorial togs at UAB. “How and where you use your mouse is probably the same every time and you probably misspell the same words from time to time. If I have enough opportunity to observe your habits at your keyboard or if I have software to record your keystrokes, I can build a signature for you; and with that knowledge I can positively identify you sitting at any computer anywhere in the world, regardless of who you claim to be.”

If I have enough opportunity to observe your habits at your keyboard or if I have software to record your keystrokes, I can build a signature for you; and with that knowledge I can positively identify you sitting at any computer anywhere in the world, regardless of who you claim to be.

The Birmingham native and UAB alumnus is a lawyer who has served around the world as an active-duty officer in the Army, the Army National Guard and, now, the Army Reserve. In 1995, he returned home to launch UAB’s future national champion mock trial team and teach as an adjunct professor. In 2003, after returning from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan as 20th Special Forces Group Airborne senior intelligence officer, Grimes received a full-time faculty appointment.

Soon he will retire from the military — mandatory after 30 years of service — but he is not ready to quit serving his country. One CIA/JFR initiative is to develop a minor in intelligence analytics now that Grimes has more time to dedicate to teaching. There also is talk of creating an Introduction to the Intelligence Community course for spring 2013 that would be open to anyone. The goal is to whet the appetite of the curious and identify a new generation of intelligence experts to fill a huge void in the workforce.

“The intelligence community experienced a purge of its ranks in the 1980s but since has undergone some growth, so we should see significant retirements during the next decade,” says Grimes. “There is tremendous potential for placement of graduates, and that will generate enormous opportunities for students who prepare themselves and maintain clean backgrounds so they can obtain the requisite security clearances.”

He wants the introductory course to teach the reality of duty as an intelligence officer. The intrigue of being a spy always has been a media hit, from “I Spy” in the 1960s to “Alias” and “24” at the turn of this century; Hollywood even inspired Grimes initially. He saw two movies on his 14th birthday — “The Green Berets” with John Wayne and “Thunder Ball” with Sean Connery — and that double feature drove him to pursue the unique combination of military Special Forces and counter-intelligence training in real life.

“I learned right away in my professional career that Hollywood bears little resemblance to reality. Intelligence work is not glamorous,” says Grimes. “Nor is it given to people who cannot resist the temptation to talk about what they do for a living. It is not for everybody; in fact, it is quite selective in terms of those who are capable of making a successful career in the intelligence field.  But for those given to pursuing such a career, UAB’s Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research is here to provide the launching pad I wish I’d had 30 years ago.”

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