Interview: Cofer Black
Credit: Photograph by Christopher McLallen

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 University of Southern California 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.

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?
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.