Every president needs one: a trusted envoy to the murky world of the U.S. intelligence community who is also treated like a close political aide. For President Obama that person is John Brennan, a career CIA officer who is so powerful that many senior spies complain that Brennan is the de facto CIA chief. For President Reagan, the envoy was William Casey, who helped wage a secret war against Soviet proxies from his perch as CIA director at Langley, Va., after he managed his friend's presidential campaign in 1980. President George W. Bush often relied on Dick Cheney for counsel about the dark side, particularly after 9/11. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, his trusted man inside the intel community will almost certainly be Cofer Black, a retired CIA officer best known for running the agency’s counterterrorism center on 9/11.
Black is already performing that role for candidate Romney. Last January, before a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman, Romney received a special intelligence briefing. According to one source familiar with the gathering, Black arranged for the former Massachusetts governor to receive the kind of detailed country analysis an important senator or senior defense official would normally get from the CIA’s station chief in Amman. The briefing, however, was not from the current station chief but rather from a group of retired CIA officers now working for the Hashemite Kingdom.
Black has known Romney since 2007, when the candidate was running for president the first time, and has been an important adviser ever since. But unlike other Romney foreign-policy aides, he does not spend time tweaking speeches or coming up with nuanced ways to explain the candidate’s positions on international affairs. Instead, he often acts as the campaign’s in-house intelligence officer.
When Romney was planning to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2007—a particularly tense period—Black provided regular assessments on the security situation on the ground. On conference calls in 2011 about the Egyptian uprising, Black tapped his old colleagues in Egypt’s intelligence service to provide Romney’s advisers with insights on the state of the revolution that began in Tahrir Square. More recently, Romney advisers say, Black has shared insights on the state of Iran’s nuclear program that he gleaned from old contacts in the Israeli Mossad. The briefings take place during regular conference calls among Romney advisers on Iran. “Cofer rarely argues a point in these calls,” one such aide said. “It’s almost always a briefing.”
Early in his career, Black was credited with doing much of the street work that led to France’s apprehension in Khartoum, Sudan, of the master terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. After the 9/11 attacks, according to Bob Woodward’s first book in his series about the Bush presidency, it was Black who briefed the president on the CIA’s war plan for Afghanistan. He’s also the guy who promised to leave al Qaeda’s operatives with “flies walking across their eyeballs.”
He’s the guy who promised to leave al Qaeda’s operatives with “flies walking across their eyeballs.”
In his memoir, former CIA chief George Tenet relays a story about how after the 9/11 attacks, Black insisted on staying at his office with his staff at the Global Response Center, even though the center was located in an exposed area of the agency's headquarters, on the sixth floor—a possible target for terrorists. Tenet had wanted to evacuate the center, but Black rebuffed him. "Well, they could die," Tenet remembers telling Black about his staff. Black’s response: "Well sir, then they are just going to have to die."
In December, 2002, Black transferred to the State Department as the ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. In 2004 he left government, and the following year he became a vice chairman of the controversial security contractor, Blackwater USA, managing a subsidiary company known as Total Intelligence Solutions. Today Black is a senior vice president for Blackbird Technologies, a Virginia based security contractor.
Tim Weiner, the author of a comprehensive history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, describes Black as “an extremely amiable, smart and charming man and an experienced intelligence professional … He is also the man who vowed to bring Osama bin Laden’s head to George W. Bush on a pike and did not make good on that promise.”
Bill Harlow, who was the CIA’s spokesman in the period that Black was in charge of the CTC, said it is unfair to suggest Black somehow abandoned the fight against al Qaeda. “After 9/11, Cofer led the counterterrorism center’s efforts which resulted in the Taliban being routed and al Qaeda sent on the run. To suggest he left the fight early is absurd,” he says.
Asked for input on this story, Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul described Black as “a well-respected figure in the national security community” and said “we are pleased to have him on the team.” She added that Romney “fields advice from a diverse set of advisers, evaluates their opinions, and ultimately makes his own decisions.”