Bush's War

Cofer Black

photo of black

Black served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center from 1999 to 2002, when he left to become the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism. Black left government service for the private sector in 2004, joining the private security firm Blackwater in 2005 and founding his own intelligence company. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted March 7, 2006 as part of FRONTLINE's 2006 report The Dark Side.

[On the morning of 9/11,] where are you?

... I was in my office pretty early, as is my usual situation, getting briefed, reading reports. Had a TV on in my office; didn't notice the first aircraft hit the tower. One of my colleagues walked in and said, "A plane has flown into the tower." And looked up at the TV screen, and there was this black hole against the building.

Cause for concern, but you know the press of things you do in the day, and continued on. I had a meeting that morning, interestingly enough, with the captain of the USS Cole; you might remember the Cole was attacked [by Al Qaeda while in harbor in Yemen in October 2000]. He was coming by essentially as a courtesy call, to thank me for the support that the CIA had given to his ship and his crew. ...

I also received a call from one of my colleagues in New York. ... He called me at my desk, and he said: "You know, Cofer, I think there's a problem here. I watched the aircraft fly into the first tower. ... The problem is, I was watching the control services. The pilot was flying it into the building."

So I had the biggest piece of information I needed for my day. Mentally I was already beginning to recalculate all this as a terrorist threat. And while that conversation was going on, he said, "A second aircraft has struck the building."

There was no doubt in my mind what had happened. It was pretty easy to surmise who the perpetrators were. The captain of the Cole and I looked each other in the eye, and as I recall the look in his eyes, I think it was with gratitude he was [thinking], I'm so grateful I'm not you. Left the area, and then things began to roll extremely quickly. ...

How soon did you know that it was Al Qaeda?

What do you mean, "know"? ... If you're asking for my professional experience, the minute the second plane hit, there was no doubt in my mind. And I think the subsequent evidence and information that was collected proved me to be correct. ... You're talking multiple attacks; there's vulnerable targets for high impact -- it was sort of a classic Al Qaeda. Their attack set has been pretty evolutionary, to a certain extent can be predicted. ...

What are your emotions at that moment?

... A lot of people say, "Well, 9/11 changed everything." Well, it may have changed everything for everybody else, but for us who have been in this fight for a long period of time, it was not a surprise. ... My personal reaction -- I don't want to speak for my colleagues, but I think they were very similar -- was: Here it goes. This one has finally got past all of our defenses. We are now in a situation where we'll no longer be like the junkyard dog staked to the ground, ... and that our capabilities were going to be unleashed and realized.

I was shocked at the carnage, the loss of life. I frankly expected it to be a lot more. I know how many people in theory work in those towers. So I guess one could say to a very limited degree, we're lucky that the attack didn't take place later in the morning. But the loss of life was very hurtful to all of us who are charged with defending America. We could have sure used a hell of a lot more help than we got from everybody, but we went forward immediately, effectively and with honor, to launch against these guys.

We had plans that had been developed in the past that had reached their due date with 9/11 and the political climate changed. ... We were truly the tip of the spear for the United States. And we went at it with unbelievable energy. ...

Did you know that this would change the CIA in some important way?

... I knew it would have an effect. I knew that the CIA, as we knew it, would change in some fundamental way. You can't have a surprise and have loss of life take place like this without there being a fundamental effect. I will tell you I was surprised, however, to see the result that the Central Intelligence Agency took primarily virtually all the blame, whatever blame was to be passed around, and other organs of the government basically got off so scot-free. I didn't expect it to that degree, but we served to protect them. You have to live with what you've got.

[But there was also] out of the tragedy an upswing, in a way, for the Central Intelligence Agency. There was a plan. You guys were ready to go. If there was ever a weapon effective against terrorists, it would be an intelligence agency. It's not really an army that fights a terrorist war.

Well, I would like to put this into perspective for you. ... It always gives me pause when I think about the fact that the 9/11 Commission hired twice as much staff ... and were allocated twice as much money than I was provided to fight Al Qaeda worldwide on an annual basis. Our society is one in which after the fact, we're prepared to allocate twice as many people and spend twice as much money to investigate. My comeback to that is, I hope we are now the kind of country that puts its resources appropriately in the right place so we have the potential to save lives.

You have a personal involvement with Al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden. The way the story goes, he tried to kill you. ... Tell me a little bit of that story.

Normally I would just sort of not pay much attention to the subject, but there's a book written about it, essentially, about the work that the Central Intelligence Agency did in Khartoum in the mid-90s. One of our missions there was primarily the mission that was counterterrorism, and one of the targets that we operated against and collected against was Al Qaeda. ...

I think Al Qaeda began to realize that this represented a threat, so they began to initiate counteractions against us. ... We picked it [up] very quickly, what was their advanced planning for an assassination attempt. ... Actually, we were reasonably well impressed. They were good, but clearly not good enough. And we made sure that it was terminated before they could execute it further. ...

What is it like to be the target?

Well, it depends who the target is, actually. They thought I was the target; actually, I was the hunter, and we turned it on them (snaps fingers) like that. And when they had their chance, they ran home to Mama.

... We're at 9/11 now. What's going on?

9/11, that day was seized with trying to figure out exactly what has happened, what is happening. As you recall, there were a lot of reports in the media of attacks against the State Department, the White House. I'm trying to sort through these things. ... I recall that the director released a percentage of the workforce, which was, I think, a prudent decision for most people, because we'd had repeated reporting over time that CIA headquarters itself was a validated terrorist target. ...

The CTC [Counterterrorist Center] remained at their positions, because they need to for the information flow. So it was basically pretty hectic. But I also felt it was under control professionally because of the quality of people; they were very good and very professional. And the day went by very quickly, as it went into the night, all night, for a number of days before a lot of us went home.

Were you ever talking to the bunker? Were you involved in listening to [former national counterterrorism coordinator] Dick Clarke or [Vice President Dick] Cheney or any of those guys on that day?

I recall that there was a secure videoconference that I went into very briefly. But interestingly enough, the issues it was addressing -- bringing down commercial aircraft for their safety, management of the borders and things like that -- is not really where I belonged specifically. I had my duties, which is information collection -- trying to tell who did it, who else is involved, what can we do about it, what are the threats that are out there -- and also to gear up the counterattack, which we in CTC had been working on for a significant period of time under the direction of [then-CIA Director] George Tenet. ...

The first time you go to the White House to meet the president to talk about this, give me a sense of what that was like. What was the conversation? ...

My recollection of service in the CIA was that what happens in these meetings is classified information, so I would not presume to talk about who said what. ... But generally, I would tell you that in my observation of the president in the meetings that I attended, observations [of] what was said and the principal officers of the Untied States government and the people involved, it made me very proud to be an American. ... Everyone was measured, calm, reasoned. Spoke clearly. There was the minimal amount of emotion. I think the American people can be very proud in this instance that I saw of how everybody conducted themselves. ...

There's always the sense that those of us outside had that there was an impetus to revenge, an impetus to anger, an impetus to fear. ... Which was it?

You have to make a differentiation between the overall general reaction and perhaps my personal reaction. I think the overall general reaction is, obviously, a catastrophic strike, a need to protect the American people and our allies and all innocent people, which takes a tremendous amount of thinking and effort and orders and validation of information and such, and the very clear, stated objective that the perpetrators of this heinous crime against innocent people will be brought to justice.

My own personal view of all this was that this was a time that I trained for my whole life. I had the best people working with me. In the agency, we have a saying, "These are the guys that you can go to war with." ...

We knew that we had been working on this for years. We had plans: both global plans that very quickly were turned into a wide-attack matrix; we also had the going-to-war plan against Al Qaeda and, by association, the Taliban in Afghanistan. ...

We really took momentum. And George Tenet said OK, take the plan and have it ready by tomorrow. We spent years working on this stuff, so when everybody else is looking for their maps on Afghanistan, we're ready to rock; we're ready to roll. ...

Who sells the plan? Is it Tenet [who] goes down to the White House, sells the plan to the president? Do you accompany him? Is it a hard sell? How does it go?

First of all, this is a plan that the agency had been working on for a significant period of time; I'd say two years. ... This plan was under the guidance of George Tenet, and it was his determination when and how it would be advanced [to] the senior leadership, the president of the Untied States. My role was to accompany him and support him in his presentation. ...

He had this amazing relationship with Bush at the time. Was it apparent to you? And did you know it going in?

My observation is I think most people naturally gravitate to George Tenet. He's a very affable, friendly man. He's a good personal friend of mine, one I plan to keep for life. But I did sense at that time certainly a pretty close relationship with the president and with other senior officials in the United States government.

Was the vice president there?

There were multiple meetings; at some he was, and some I recall that he was not. To tell you the truth, in all honesty, there were so many of these meetings, when you go long enough with very little sleep and you're focused on the job, you get this really strange short-term memory. So my accuracy in remembering exactly what happened when and who was there [is unclear].

Do you have an overall impression of Cheney and how he felt about Tenet or the CIA at that moment? Was he leading a kind of opposition idea in any way?

No, I don't think so, and I never detected anything like that. I mean, in situations like this, frankly, this is serious business. We've been attacked. This is war. People are going to die, and my guys are going to die. ... All the relationships that I saw were highly professional. I was very impressed with all of them, individually and collective[ly]. ...

... What was the broad outline of the plan for Afghanistan? How does it work? ...

Essentially, the action was planned to be classic CIA going back to its OSS [Office of Strategic Services] roots. The problem was that we could not split off the Taliban from Al Qaeda. ... Essentially, it's going to have to be a multipronged threat attack where we work with locals. We wanted to minimize the American footprint. We thought that failure would be the 1st Infantry Division and the like trying to imitate the Soviets. In their experience, the Soviets were there for 10 years and [had] almost 14,000 killed, 35,000 wounded. Frankly, we didn't think that was a good approach.

The plan essentially evolved around the fundamental elements of intelligence: protecting teams, work with the local tribes, collect intelligence, assess requirements, equip and resupply, provide guidance and utilize Americans' projection of firepower to support offense actions on the ground. ... We encouraged allies. We spurred them on. We compromised enemies. We used cash. We provided humanitarian aid. And if we had to, we directed ordnance, primarily airpower, against specific units. And it pretty much worked.

CIA's greatest moment?

Well, I couch this in two ways. We need to remember that the commander of this war, the combatant commander, was Gen. Tommy Franks. It was his show; he was in charge; he was responsible; we were subordinate to him. I think he liked our contribution in terms of planning, and I think he operationalized that with his warfighters effectively. ... [I'm] proud of this for my people, because we'd like the survivors of 9/11 to know that those of us in the business consider it the CIA's finest hour. We went in to kick ass, and we did that.

The stuff that I've read that you've said, "heads on spears, dry ice, magnets" whatever it is, "30 percent of you will die" -- hyperbole or the real thing?

I always sort of smile to myself when I hear people repeat these things. ... Here's the situation: You have a civilian intelligence service that has spent almost all of its time up until this point focused on the Cold War, against Cold War targets, espionage. Think of trench coats, hats, Berlin, fog, dead drops, and you get caught, and you get smacked around a little bit, and they give you a first class air ticket home. ...

We were now coming out of the Cold War. There was considered to be a dividend of peace. The biggest threat was ballistic missiles, and we needed a ballistic missile defense.

And now basically in a nanosecond, we're going from this, where we were staked to the ground like a junkyard dog -- you can report but you can't do anything -- to new authorities, new rules of engagement, lots of funding to support this, tip of the spear. Going into a hostile environment. ... I was fully expecting a nasty, nasty war and I wanted the guys ready for a nasty war. ... This is a whole new ballgame. ...

Gary [Berntsen] is wiring and calling and frantically saying: "We've got him in the mountains. We've got bin Laden up here. We've got him wounded. Let's get him; let's grab him; let's bring him down. Let's cover the pass." He's calling Washington; he's calling the military; he's doing everything he can. Are you plugged into that?

Yeah, I had a lot of duties, but I was aware of the situation. It was very ably handled at the Washington end by my lieutenants. ... And there's no one that has greater respect for Gary than me. I sent him in there. He is an American hero. He went into combat in a very tricky situation, and I know Gary feels the situation is as he reported it. As Gary will say, he was on the ground.

I'd also say that Gen. Tommy Franks was the combatant commander, and it is the combatant commander's decisions of how the fight is prosecuted, what resources are used. And the combatant commander needs to be convinced from his perspective what the appropriate action is. And he will tell you that he took the appropriate action. So basically, I basically support both. ...

Were you involved in the discussions? Did you call Franks? Did you argue on behalf of your guys?

My guys were [in] regular contact ... with the command. We take a lot of pleasure that we, I think, effectively supported them. Let's just remember, this is not a relationship of equals. We are subordinate to -- we provide a service. We provide information; we provide capability; we provide relationships. And it is the commander's responsibility, Gen. Tommy Franks' -- the buck stops with Gen. Franks. He's the one that makes these decisions.

So were you guys in that debate? I mean, were you and Mr. Tenet pushing for what Gary wanted?

We were advancing his information, and the military had the same information that we did. They made their decisions accordingly, so that's it. Combat is tough, and it's a lot more complex -- it's never simplistic.

Is your professional opinion, bin Laden walked because of Franks' decision?

I would say that would be incorrect. ... You know, you get all of this in a stew as you go along, so it's never simplistic; it's never easy. The control of information and forces in battle is, I think, probably one of the most complex issues on earth. So I'm very understanding of everyone in this equation. I only like to stick with that which I know and experience myself. ...

… What was the effect of George Tenet on the Central Intelligence Agency when he came as DCI [Director of Central Intelligence]? ...

... I think that he was certainly the right man for the time when it came up. He had excellent relations on the Hill. That was at a time when the agency needed good relations with Congress and the Senate, and he provided that. I think that's his strong suit. ...

And by the end, what had happened to him? Did he fall on his sword? Did he play out the string? From your perspective, what happened?

From my perspective, I think George Tenet was a very effective director. I think the milieu that he operated in was exceedingly complex and difficult. ... I think because of George Tenet's effective political and personal relationships, frankly we probably got more resources out of it than I would have otherwise. ... I think most people would validate that we were seriously underresourced; you need only look at the beginning, before 9/11 and post-9/11, and see the differences in numbers of personnel. ... The contrast was so mind-numbing, it's hard for me even to relate.

Were you able to speak truth to power in the Oval Office? Were they listening to you?

I was a public servant; you join the Central Intelligence Agency to serve in a special capacity. When asked, I have told every superior exactly what I think. I execute the legal orders given to me. If I don't agree with them, I go back, and I say, "Sir, I believe I have the sufficient authority, and it's legally acceptable under authorities." After that, you have to soldier on or quit; you have a choice. It's pretty straightforward.

And Tenet, could he do it?

... I think you should ask Director Tenet. Everyone has their own view. Mine is very simplistic and very old school. My own personal view is that we're here to serve the American people, to protect. ...

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posted march 24, 2008

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