In his first in-depth interview, the former CIA head of counterterrorism and current vice chair of Blackwater talks about trying to warn President Bush before the 9/11 attacks, waterboarding, and how America can win the war on terror.
In his first in-depth interview, the former CIA head of counterterrorism and current vice chair of Blackwater talks about trying to warn President Bush before the 9/11 attacks, waterboarding, and how America can win the war on terror.
Interviewed by Kevin McMurray
He has been called a mercenary, an advocate of torture, the epitome of all that is wrong with the CIA, and a henchman for government officials who want to trample the civil rights of American citizens. J. Cofer Black, 58, the foremost expert on counterterrorism in the world today, has heard them all. Born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1950, the USC grad left the school’s doctoral program in international relations to join the CIA in 1974. He tracked and helped capture noted terrorist Carlos the Jackal in Khartoum, Sudan — a place where he would also catch the attention of another terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, who would try to have him assassinated. In February 2005, soon after Bush was reelected, Black took his three decades of intelligence experience to the private sector to help run the controversial private-security firm Blackwater.
Black’s Blackwater office isn’t listed on the lobby directory of the firm’s nondescript Washington high-rise, nor is it identified on the floor it occupies, a reminder of the sensitivity of Black’s work and notoriety among those he says “don’t send me Christmas cards.” His bright, airy workplace, the setting for his first (and, he pledges multiple times before it ends, last) interview, offers a panoramic view over northern Virginia, not far from his old haunts at Langley.
Despite the fact that he’s now a corporate executive seated comfortably behind a large desk, Black still has the temperament of a field operative in the war-torn regions of Africa and who has dodged rounds from AK-47s in Afghanistan. He’ll sit back casually, hands clasped behind his balding head; then suddenly rock forward, leaning over his desk as far as his large 6-foot-3, 245-pound body will permit, staring hard and raising his low-key professorial tone to that of a stern taskmaster to emphasize a point. With Black there are no short answers, but there are subjects that are off-limits. He is fiercely loyal to the Central Intelligence Agency, proud of his service, and careful not to leak any information sensitive to national security. He makes that clear without apology, but also makes it clear he has plenty else to say.
MJ: You and CIA Director George Tenet met with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on July 10, 2001, to warn the administration of an impending Al Qaeda attack. What did you tell them?
CB: Our assessment that morning was that “the ceiling was falling in,” an attack was imminent against U.S. interests and could very well be within the United States. There was no mystery; we fully expected to be struck, and struck hard. Director Tenet immediately recognized that things had taken a profound turn and there was a need for the upper levels of the U.S. government to appreciate this. It was lock ’n’ load time. Tenet contacted the White House, but unfortunately the president was in Crawford, Texas; the senior officer in charge was Condi Rice. It was the most hard-hitting briefing I had ever participated in. Condi Rice asked, “Cofer, what do we do?” and I told her in dramatic and unequivocal terms, as is my way, I guess, that this country had to go on a war footing — now! We left that meeting thinking we had provided the alert to our leadership.
Do you believe that if President Bush had then given the CIA authorization to eliminate Bin Laden, September 11 could have been prevented?
I wouldn’t exactly characterize it that way. But I will say we were virtually the only ones focused on collecting intelligence to preempt attacks on the United States. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers said to the 9/11 Commission that before the attacks, the military didn’t focus on counterterrorism because of concerns of using military personnel in law enforcement. Personally, I think this was an outgrowth of the Powell doctrine. Secretary Colin Powell, in reaction to the Vietnam War, reconstructed our military forces so they could not conduct a major action without involving the support of the American people. They wouldn’t get involved in little things where they could take losses and be embarrassed. The Special Ops community — SEALs, army Special Forces — were all eager to get involved, but our military leadership wouldn’t let them go forward.
Do you wish you had done more?
A lot of people ask, Don’t you feel responsible for 9/11? Absolutely not. We were the only ones in the fight. We held the line and fought as hard as we could with the resources we had. Looking back, I can’t think of a damn thing we could have done that would have changed anything.
What about President Bush’s handling of events after 9/11?
God bless President Bush. From September 13 or so to December, the time I participated in meetings with him, he was a world-class leader and calm in this crisis.
Prior to that, do you think the administration dismissed the CIA’s advice?
Let me answer this way: The Clinton administration spent eight years coming to terms with counterterrorism. Their orientation became more focused the further along they went, to which point — they will be all too happy to tell you — they recognized that this was the largest issue the new administration would face and told them so. But what actions did [the Clinton administration] take? I would say that they were grossly insufficient. The new administration was trying to address this, but they just were not fast enough.
Director Tenet had named you head of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) in 1999. How much of the unit’s focus then was on Al Qaeda?
The groups that required the most attention were the ones that had killed Americans, were currently claiming they wanted to kill Americans, and had the capability to kill Americans. We rank-ordered them in those terms. When I began at CTC the group at the top of our list was the one that had killed the most Americans, notably the 241 Marines in Beirut in ’83: Hezbollah. Al Qaeda was second.
Can you elaborate on “the plan” that you presented to Director Tenet for penetrating Bin Laden’s operations?
A lot remains classified, but basically it was to more effectively get intelligence from within Al Qaeda that would compromise their attack-planning against the U.S. This all had to be done clandestinely because we had no embassy in Afghanistan. We basically surrounded Afghanistan with assets, sometimes with the help of neighboring states, and sent in collection capabilities. Contrary to the nonsense being spouted about our lack of intelligence collectors, we actually had more than 100 human agents on the ground in Afghanistan.
You pressed Tenet before 9/11 to use Predator drones against Al Qaeda. What delayed the approval?
There was a conflict between the CIA and the Pentagon regarding cost, and considerable concern about the Predator’s use under international law, particularly the armed version, which CTC pushed for relentlessly, to considerable criticism.
On September 11 you reportedly chose not to evacuate Langley with the rest of the CIA, insisting that CTC had to continue to work.
At that time we had airplanes crashing into buildings, and there was an entire universe of false reporting that was complicating the situation. There were a lot of people at Langley whose presence was not critical. I told Director Tenet that he had to exempt my people because our computers and our global reaction center were here, and we were working with the field and liaisons. “This is why we exist,” I said, and he responded that my people could die. I replied, “Then they’re just going to have to die.” We stayed.
After 9/11 the CIA was given unprecedented freedom to fight a clandestine war in Afghanistan. Was it enough?
The contrast between my job at CTC before 9/11 and after was dramatic. Before, it was encumberment and bureaucracy; after, with the support of the president, we had the resources we needed to do the job, and we got the approvals we needed. We had plans, we had experience, we were highly motivated, and, frankly, we had been chained to the ground like a junkyard dog. Now the chain was cut.
Is it true that the CIA had no plans to capture Osama Bin Laden alive?
That’s not true. My mission as dictated to me by the highest levels of the U.S. government was to destroy Al Qaeda. In the process we wanted to render to justice their entire leadership. If we talked these guys into surrender, we’d turn them over to the FBI. The problem is, to my recollection, Al Qaeda has never surrendered in a combat situation. In Afghanistan, when the Northern Alliance had successfully ambushed Al Qaeda units, the last survivors would huddle together around a grenade and pull the pin.
But didn’t you tell your lead operative in Afghanistan to bring you the head of Osama Bin Laden boxed in ice so you could show it to President Bush?
Let me characterize it in a different way. This is not about some kind of grisly decapitation exercise. What it is about is on a Third World battlefield, in the fog of war, being able to prove your actions. With rounds whizzing by your head, are you going to take the time to get out a fingerprint kit, maybe draw some blood for a DNA match, perhaps take a dental impression? If it were me, I’d want something fast.
Will we ever catch Bin Laden?
There is a profound desire by all senior government leaders to catch this guy. It’s a high priority. So yeah, he will be caught. Will his capture have a detrimental effect on Al Qaeda? Yes. Will it be a catastrophic effect? No. Someone will rise to take his place, and we will have to deal with it.
How can we win the war on terror?
You can’t shoot your way out of this problem. Just guys rocking ’n’ rolling, riding around looking for terrorists, is a losing strategy. You have to have a significant civilian-led “soft power” that separates terrorists from the population, targets youth, and minimizes those who are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists. The military has to be in the right context — it’s on tap, not on top. What we need is a State Department–led regional commander, responsible for all the civilian elements of statecraft, coordinating with a military counterpart on how to separate the people from the terrorists. At that point you bring in your intelligence collectors and Special Forces to engage and resolve terrorists outside the fold. It takes patience, but it will work.
In his book Bush at War, Bob Woodward claimed the White House referred to you as “the flies across the eyeballs guy.” What does that mean?
It was at one of the early briefings after 9/11. There were only a few of us present in the White House Situation Room, including the president. I gave them a briefing on what we could do. Remember this was a fighting war now; everyone’s blood was up and we all wanted to defend the American people from another attack. I used an old expression I learned in the Angola war that “when this is all over, the bad guys are going to have flies walking across their eyeballs.”
How do you respond to critics who say the CIA was given too much power?
There is a balance that we in a democracy always strive for between free speech and security. When a country gets struck, as we were, you see a move away from free speech and personal rights to enhanced security. The greater the threat and the larger the number of casualties we take, the farther and faster the pendulum goes in that direction. As an American citizen this is something that always has to be looked at and debated. In this instance, where our country had been struck and several thousand people killed, there was a premium on moving fast. It’s like a bar fight where your greatest advantage is to strike quickly. We have to give the people who protect us the tools to do the job. The debate will always be what those tools should be. It would have been catastrophic to take our time and send in the conventional military, to do an imitation of the Soviet army getting chewed up in Afghanistan — 10 years, 10,000 killed, and 30,000 wounded. What did we do? Three hundred army Special Forces, 110 CIA officers, direct firepower, 10 weeks — and all the cities had fallen, the government had been overturned, and we had victory. Not bad!
Victory? Then why do we seem to be stuck in Afghanistan?
The lightning-fast overthrow of the Taliban and defeat of Al Qaeda did suffer over time. It was not as effectively followed up as we would have liked, as U.S. military resources were redirected toward Iraq.
When you briefed the Russians on our plans to attack Afghanistan they reportedly said, “You’re really going to get the hell kicked out of you,” and you replied, “We’re going to kill them — we’re going to put their heads on sticks.” True?
True, and you know what, the Russians loved it! After the meeting was over, two senior Russian officials, whom I will not name, said to me, “Mr. Black, finally America is acting like a superpower!” They’d been to the rodeo and they lost. They had a hell of a fight in Afghanistan. It was a great expression of solidarity in our moment of need. We needed their support and their cooperation, and we got it. They too were the enemies of Al Qaeda and the Taliban; they just had to be assured that we had no ulterior motivations.
Why wasn’t the CIA more accommodating with the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban? Was it out of deference to Pakistan’s hegemony?
The CIA executes. It can propose options, but other people make decisions. This has to do with the national command authority and the National Security Council. We were great proponents of advancing that relationship with the Northern Alliance, but there was reluctance to go beyond the levels we were at. There were allegations the Northern Alliance were drug runners. Let’s say it was true: How would the relationship between them and the CTC play in the New York Times? And, oh, by the way, the Northern Alliance hates Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. These things are not easy to decide.
You were offered anonymity to testify before Congress after 9/11 but declined, saying you wanted “to look the American public in the eye.” Why?
I was undercover as a CIA officer and had been doing this kind of work for a long time. There are a lot of groups and individuals out there who don’t exactly send me Christmas cards, so being on TV is not something I want to do. But I felt things were going off track in terms of the blame game and finger pointing, and there was an incorrect portrayal of what I and my people were doing at the CTC. I wanted the American people to see my face, because our story is one they should know — that my men and women are people of the highest integrity, and the best this country produces.
It has been reported that you were forced out of the CIA in December 2002 by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. True?
That is incorrect. There was an article that stated six people in the intelligence community said Don Rumsfeld saw Cofer Black’s removal as necessary because I had spoken to the Washington Post about the Afghan war, which is also not true. Another falsehood — perpetuated by those opposed to rendition, detention facilities like Guantánamo, and interrogations — comes from a statement I made in a hearing that there was a “Before 9/11,” and an “After 9/11,” and after 9/11 the gloves came off. That was portrayed in some of the media as the first sign that we were going to be conducting hostile interrogations. It has nothing to do with that. We were going to war in Afghanistan, shooting at each other — that’s what that statement was about. But it was totally turned around as the flagship statement on interrogations and waterboarding people.
So you think the renditions and interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects have been successful?
I like to think we are brainy enough to know that if something isn’t working we stop it and try something else. We didn’t have the luxury of being inefficient. It is standard procedure in a combat zone to interrogate prisoners of war. I think at last count the CIA is accused of waterboarding three guys. The waterboarding was done legally, with the Department of Justice signing off on it. I’m an operations guy, and I’m not a big fan of interrogations, but you know, life’s tough and there are no easy answers. The American people have to decide if they want interrogations done or not. If not, the repercussions will have to be on someone else’s conscience.
Why did you go into the private sector to join Blackwater in 2005?
I needed to take a break from the government, for various reasons. I’d had pretty intense jobs for a long period of time. The responsibility was growing heavy on me. The reason I came to Blackwater was its mission to support the United States government, primarily in the training area but also in the security area. I’m proud of the fact that Blackwater provided air resupply to my son, who was serving in the Afghan mountains. That’s all I want to say about Blackwater.
What about accusations that Blackwater is a group of mercenaries?
It’s a free country, so everyone can have their own opinion, but, frankly, I am appalled. We work in support of the U.S. government; we bid for contracts and our bids win. I don’t think working for the U.S. government is mercenary.
But didn’t you say in 2006 that you foresaw small, private security forces carrying out limited military actions in various parts of the world?
No, but thanks for asking this. This revolves around a speech I made at a military conference in Amman, Jordan, where Blackwater was a sponsor. What I stated was that with the reviewed approval of the U.S. government, the U.N., and the African Union, Blackwater has the interest and capability to project highly qualified personnel into Darfur to administer to their health and welfare, and to protect itself in doing that. This was translated in some circles as “Army for hire!”
What can you say about the killing of four Blackwater security personnel in Fallujah in March 2004?
I can’t talk about it because of ongoing legal action regarding that.
What about the September 2007 killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater personnel that resulted in the Iraqi government temporarily revoking the company’s license to operate?
I’m not at liberty to discuss it.
So what is your response to those outraged over Blackwater’s immunity from prosecution for war crimes when uniformed service personnel don’t have the same protection?
That’s not accurate. We are subject to a lot of rules and regulations. There’s a whole list of them. [Black leaves his office and returns moments later with a sheet of paper from the State Department listing 21 regulations for Blackwater, including the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act of 1996.] Anyone who says we are not accountable is wrong.
In 2007 you founded a company called Total Intelligence Solutions. How is it linked to Blackwater, and how is it different?
[Former CIA Deputy Chief of Clandestine Operations] Rob Richer and I started the company. It is a stand-alone entity and shares nothing with Blackwater — no overlapping personnel; separate and distinct, apples and oranges. The company objective is to provide private sector entities, ideally American Fortune 500 companies, with intelligence and analytical products they need to make good decisions. Because the better job we can do supporting the titans of industry, the less the U.S. government has to do to support them.
What is it about corporate intelligence and security that appeals to you?
Having supported decision makers in the U.S. government, I thought it would be useful to provide the same type of support to CEOs. It’s not very zingy, I know. There are no guns, no parachutes, no black ops, no microdots. It’s just about keeping these guys current.
Ron Suskind’s book The Way of the World claims the White House ordered the CIA to forge the Habbush letter, which was provided as concrete evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The White House and the CIA deny it. Is there any truth to the story?
I find it unbelievable. Knowing the way the agency works, knowing the character of the people involved, I will tell you that if an order like that came down they would have resigned in a heartbeat. I would have, too. We’re about protecting America, not hoodwinking it.
Looking forward, is counterterrorism something that can be better accomplished by the private sector?
It requires involvement of all the elements of statecraft in a sustainable way. Too often the tendency is to react high-order, and after a couple of years we let things slip. I believe civilian agencies in the U.S. government need to be better integrated. And the private sector is a great resource to be called upon selectively to fill a short-term need in both an effective and economical way.
How can the new administration ensure that all these different moving parts in the war on terror work well together?
What worked for us during the Cold War does not do as well now. Our approach should not vulnerable to fluctuating budgets. I would much rather work with less money every year but steady over a 10-to-20-year period instead of one-time windfalls; that way you can have rational planning over time. We also need to put in perspective the media’s breathless reporting of marginal events as “profoundly bad news.”
When did you first decide you wanted to work for the CIA?
I was sitting around with some classmates at Canterbury prep school late one night when the question arose of what was the most dangerous, exciting job one could have. I came up with being a CIA agent. That festered in my brain. I was in the Air Force ROTC program at USC and was very interested in flying, but going into the CIA seemed proactive, immediate, and I could contribute to peace rather than focusing on retaliation.
You got your start with the CIA in various war-torn parts of Africa. When did you first become fascinated with the continent?
My dad was a pilot for Pan Am, and on school holidays he would take me on trips with him, the vast majority to Africa. My dad was the pilot you always want at the controls of your aircraft in an emergency — he was intercepted by and evaded a Russian MiG during the Berlin Airlift when weather forced him out of the neutral corridor. He would leave me with the Pan Am station manager, and I would be free to roam about. It was an educational and magical time for me. There I was, this little Caucasian kid in a place like Roberts Field, Liberia, with no fear.
You became CIA station chief in Khartoum in 1993, just as Sudan was being ostracized as a state sponsor of terrorism and for harboring Bin Laden. What appealed to you about the place?
If your interest is in terrorism, Khartoum was where you wanted to be. Virtually every significant terrorist group was represented there: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, etc. If you are a counterterrorist, Khartoum was the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden was trying to have you assassinated. How did you find out?
The terrorist groups were becoming concerned about our presence and what it meant for their own viability and security, and they decided to take counteraction. You have to remember that we did not have a charter at that time to engage either Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. Our role was exclusively mandated to cover and report. But we got a very good understanding of Bin Laden and his organization, his capabilities, and his cover companies in Khartoum.
It was in Khartoum that you helped catch the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994. How did you find him?
I had a very small, extremely talented group of operations officers who developed a methodology to locate and positively identify him. The remainder of the time we kept track of him sufficiently to facilitate the support of an allied country who had a warrant for his arrest. That’s all I will say about that operation. But it was way cool.
How dangerous was it?
Carlos was extremely dangerous, a psychopathic killer who had machine-gunned previous surveillance teams. When you are going against people like this, armed and with supporting security, you’ve got your work cut out for you. One slip and you’re talking about a lot of dead people.
So what went right with the Jackal that went wrong with Bin Laden?
Counterterrorism is a function of rules, laws, and regulations of all the nations involved in an issue. In the case of Carlos, the French were highly motivated to catch this guy who had executed two of their agents in cold blood. The CIA played a key role in locating him and identifying him, and had comprehensive knowledge of him to facilitate a rendition. But only the French could arrest him. Now, conversely, if there had been a similar warrant for Osama Bin Laden’s arrest, a similar type of scenario could have been developed.
Let’s talk in more general terms about how you do your work. What does the CIA do right?
Intelligence involves the collection of information and analysis. Both functions are vital. Our newspapers are full of “CIA did this…” and “CIA did that.…” In reality the CIA executes instructions to collect, and on comparatively rare occasions takes “covert action” at the direction of the National Security Council and the president. “Covert action” activities most often seem a stopgap, last-resort effort to right a difficult or even failed U.S. government policy. The odds against the operator in such situations are often stark, but in a surprisingly large number of occasions, CIA achieves the goals set for them — although success does not make much of a stir, whereas failure gets the full attention of the media as well as congressional and Senate oversight committees. Over a 28-year career at CIA, I was never invited to testify before a congressional committee regarding a “success.”
So what finally makes a successful agent?
The ability to work hard, with little sleep, under stressful conditions, while using good common sense in ambiguous situations. The American people should realize that the people they have doing this work are really patriots, and they should recognize their service as we recognize that of our military personnel.
Do any spy novels really capture the flavor of intelligence work?
All the John LeCarré books are great. I think the movie The Good Shepherd is excellent to get the sense of how the professional and family lives of intelligence operatives become intertwined; the psychological aspects of the intelligence profession are also well represented.
What new threats do we need to look out for?
I think new threats will come as a result of rapid population growth on this planet. It will change our world in a dramatic way. Simply, there is not enough to go around. First we will see energy resources become scarce as a result of demanding populations in China and India, among others. Second will be competition over the basics of life: water, clean air, food, healthcare. Competition among nations may take bizarre turns to secure their share of these commodities to meet basic requirements.
You were Mitt Romney’s adviser on counterterrorism and national security. Does that signal a desire to turn to politics?
I don’t think so. You have to know your place in life. I am a practitioner of counterterrorism, and I’d like to stick with that.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Men’s Journal.