Interview: Cofer Black
Credit: Photograph by Christopher McLallen

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 [that of] 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, health care. 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.