J. Cofer Black: Romney Adviser at Home in the Spy World Fray
By Michael Levenson
The Boston Globe
Friday, November 2, 2007
… Black – who is now Mitt Romney’s chief adviser on counterterrorism and national security – is a brash and tough-talking veteran spy. He is also controversial. Black is widely credited with trying to warn then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001, but an internal CIA report last summer criticized his counterterrorist center, saying it lacked an effective strategy before Sept. 11.
Now Black is facing more scrutiny for his current role as a top executive of Blackwater Worldwide, the international security firm whose alleged killing of 17 Iraqis prompted a congressional investigation and a demand from the Iraqi government that the firm withdraw from the country.
Romney has called the allegations against Blackwater troubling, but said he is waiting for a State Department investigation to be completed before making an official pronouncement on the firm. But he proudly invokes Black’s name on the campaign trail, mentioning his 28 years in the CIA to lend himself credibility on counterterrorism issues.
Black and Romney – who met about a year ago through Steven Schrage, Romney’s foreign policy director – have had “a lot of open conversations in the context of developing the counterterrorism pieces” of Romney’s agenda, Schrage said. In general, Schrage said, Black’s views are “very much in synch with the governor’s.”
Indeed, some observers say they see Black’s influence in many of Romney’s hard-line statements, including his surprising declaration that he wants to double the size of Guantanamo Bay, the prison in which suspects are held without full legal rights; his endorsement of tough interrogation techniques; his praise for the Patriot Act; and his support for some aggressive surveillance policies.
Black is widely respected among security specialists for his ground-level view of terrorism. As a station chief in Sudan in the 1990s, he tracked bin Laden and eluded an assassination plot by the terrorist leader’s henchmen. In the same role, he also helped track down Carlos the Jackal, a Venezuelan-born terrorist wanted for taking hostages at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ 1975 conference in Vienna.
But Black’s management style and ability to map out a broad strategy to counter terrorism have been criticized. In addition, his statement in 2002 that “After 9/11 the gloves come off,” was interpreted by some as evidence that the CIA tacitly condones torture.
“He’s among the least airbrushed of the people to whom you might turn for advice in the antiterrorism world,” said Jamie S. Gorelick, a Democratic member of the 9/11 Commission, which interviewed Black. “But he is not a data-driven, analytical manager, more like what you imagine a CIA operative would be like than most who are actually” in the CIA.
Schrage declined to say whether Black would be asked to join a Romney administration, but many people in the national security field expect that Black would play a leading role in a Romney presidency, making Black a potentially pivotal figure for a former governor with little foreign policy and counterterrorism experience.
“He’s a practicing counterterrorism professional who’s gone out and chased down terrorists,” said James Jay Carafano, a counterterrorism specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He’d be an asset to any administration.”
Blackwater’s chief executive, Erik D. Prince, has testified before Congress about the killing of Iraqi civilians allegedly by Blackwater agents, but Black, who is vice chairman, has said little on the matter. Asked about the killings during a speech in Texas last month, he declined to comment beyond saying he had confidence in Blackwater agents.
Black, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is a fervent promoter of an expanded role for Blackwater, which is not named for him. In April 2006, he stunned a conference of former special forces soldiers by proposing to deploy Blackwater troops to global hot spots, including humanitarian crises such as the massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan.
“Blackwater spends a lot of time thinking, ‘How can we contribute to the common good?’ ” Black told the Special Operations Forces Exhibition in Jordan, according to Defense News, a military publication.
Black argued that big military operations tend to get mired in NATO’s bureaucracy and that Blackwater could easily send “a brigade-sized peacekeeping unit,” typically about 5,000 troops, “for a fraction of the cost of NATO operations.”
Tall, balding, and bespectacled, Black, 57, does not look like a Hollywood spy, but he had a storied career in the CIA.
He grew up in Stamford, Conn., and his father, an airline pilot, often took him to Africa to explore, according to the book “Ghost Wars,” by Steve Coll. In 1974, not long out of the University of Southern California, Black joined the CIA. He was 24.
After two decades as an agent in Africa, Black scored his most famous success in 1994, when he helped find Carlos the Jackal in Khartoum, Sudan. The terrorist was one of the most notorious criminals of the 1970s, and had been on the run since then. His arrest made headlines worldwide, particularly in France, where he was wanted for several bombings. Black celebrated by popping open champagne.
In 1999, Black took over the Counterterrorist Center and its staff of about 300.
Al Qaeda was just one of many threats the center was watching. But in July 2001, Black compiled a report on Al Qaeda that was so chilling “it made my hair stand on end,” CIA Director George Tenet wrote later. Black and Tenet presented the findings to Rice.
“This country needs to go on a war footing now,” Black said, according to Tenet.
Two months later, Al Qaeda attacked.
“We ran out of time before effective counteraction was really taken,” Black said in the speech last month in Texas, according to the Daily Toreador, the student newspaper of Texas Tech University. Black had been seeking to send armed drones into Afghanistan to kill bin Laden, according to the 9/11 Commission.
In August, a report by the CIA’s inspector general on accountability for Sept. 11 found problems with Black’s Counterterrorist Center, however. The report said the center had a “nearly exclusive focus” on individual operations to root out terrorists that resulted in “many successes,” but it did not have an overall strategy for combating terrorism.
It said the center knew in 2000 that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, may have been in the United States, but the center never gave the information to the FBI. It said that the center’s bin Laden unit had an excessive workload and that most of its officers lacked experience, expertise, and training.
And it said the center failed to effectively track Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. The inspector general recommended that an “accountability panel” review the center’s management and oversight before Sept. 11.
Black has not publicly addressed the report but has in the past dismissed such criticism.
“Life is lost in the immediate short term, and it is nice to say, you know, ‘Let’s allocate people to think large thoughts, let’s look over the horizon,’ ” Black told NPR in 2005. “But people die in the short term, and the drive is always to put your resources where you can save the most amount of life, and that’s the threats that are coming at you at this moment.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, Black’s power grew.
On Sept. 13, 2001, he delivered a theatrical pitch to President Bush in the White House situation room, popping up and down in his chair and throwing paper on the floor as he made the case for a CIA operation against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs,” Black declared, according to “Bush at War,” by Bob Woodward. The phrase was so indelible, Woodward writes, that Black became known in Bush’s inner circle as “the flies-on-the-eyeballs guy.”
Black directed a CIA plan to topple the Taliban and bring bin Laden’s head in a box, according to the book “First In,” by former CIA agent Gary C. Schroen.
Black left the CIA in 2002, went to the State Department for two years, and then left to join Blackwater in February 2005. This year, he helped launch Total Intelligence Solutions, a company that “brings CIA-style intelligence services to Fortune 500” companies, according to its website.
In April, Romney named Black his “senior adviser for counterterrorism and national security issues,” and, in September, the chairman of his 10-member “Counterterrorism Policy Advisory Group.”
Romney often invokes Black when talking about terrorism.
“One of my advisors is a man named Cofer Black who for 25 or 30 years was the head of counterterrorism for the CIA,” Romney boasted to voters in Iowa last month.
“And they talk about a circumstance where if you know that there is a bomb in America that is going to go off and kill American lives, then what kind of interrogation technique can you use against that individual . . . Torture? No. But [saying] precisely what we’re going to do and publish[ing] that for the bad guys? We’re not doing that either. Not in my view.”