Interview: Cofer Black
Credit: Photograph by Christopher McLallen

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!"